Blog: The Educated Reporter

Guest Post: Stopping the School-to-Prison Pipeline

We asked some of the journalists attending EWA’s 66th National Seminar, held at Stanford University in May, to contribute posts from the sessions. You can find additional content, including video, at EdMedia Commons. Helen Zelon of City Limits is today’s guest blogger.

Since the dawn of zero-tolerance policing in the 1980s, responsibility for school discipline has steadily shifted from teachers, principals, deans and counselors to law enforcement officials, including police officers and school resource officers or safety agents. The result has been a steep, persistent rise in student arrests, suspensions and expulsions, despite steady declines in violence in schools.

The cause, many say, is simple: Quoting a Salt Lake City police chief, panelist Phillip Atiba Goff of the University of California, Los Angeles said, “If you want to get people arrested, send a cop to where they are.”

The reverse is equally plausible, Goff said: “If you want to stop arresting kids in school, get the cops out.”

Zero-tolerance and more police in schools have created a school-to-prison pipeline in impoverished, urban districts where suspended and expelled students are effectively pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, according to critics. This year, the U.S. Department of Education addressed the school-to-prison pipeline for the first time, demanding better data collection to document student discipline. But many of the country’s largest districts, including New York City and Los Angeles, declined to provide adequate data to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

Even without the country’s biggest cities, the facts seem clear: Children of color, particularly boys and students with special needs, shoulder a disproportionate disciplinary burden. These students are suspended far more often than other youth – and each separation threatens a child’s academic success.

Schools strive for high achievement, but the youth most clearly in need of support to reach those goals are the same youth pushed — or disciplined — out of school. Goff and Josefina Alvarado-Mena, CEO of Oakland’s Safe Passages, each brought different approaches to the problem, while investigative journalist Susan Ferriss encouraged reporters to press harder to expose illuminating, if painful, truths.

Goff mixes academia and gallows humor. “I’m Dr. Doom,” he announced, via Skype. “I study terrible, depressing things – crushingly depressing data more powerful than any feeble hope.”

Goff focused on implicit bias – the inadvertent expression of racism by people who believe they are not racist – citing ostensibly neutral news articles about immigration that described “hordes” of people “swarming” a border and “contaminating” a town.

“Language frames the dialogue,” he said. “That’s what sets and expresses implicit bias,” and permits racial inequality to persist.

Culturally responsive teaching helps keep students in school, Goff said, even if teachers and students don’t share similar demographics.

“For kids trying to learn, the need to belong is even stronger than enjoying the work,” he said. “The goal of culturally responsible teaching is to get all the kids in the room to feel like education is for them, that they belong” – but shortcuts shore up bias, reinforcing the push-out effects that fuel the STPP.

Alvarado-Mena talked about turning punitive discipline models inside out, through Safe Passages’ Elev8 project, a public-private partnership that has raised more than $20 million to develop and sustain full-service community schools.

“Our vision is all about increasing access to education and other social supports to keep kids engaged in learning and keep families focused toward a productive life,” Alvarado-Mena said. “The more disconnected kids are, the more likely they will be in the juvenile justice system.”

Elev8 gathers resources into the schools, boosting infrastructure where community services falter, including school-based health clinics (funded by the district) and programs to help families with taxes, legal services and hunger.

Oversight is one thing; awareness is another. Susan Ferriss, from the Center for Public Integrity (with Krissy Clark of KQED and Vanessa Romo of KPCC), investigated school discipline, suspensions and expulsions in California, in a prize-winning multipart series.

When they published their findings, state officials were blindsided by the severity of the problems. “We opened new conversations. Even the authorities weren’t aware of the statistics around misbehavior and disorderly conduct,” Ferriss said.

Reporters should press local and state authorities to release raw data on student discipline, Ferriss urged, even as she cautioned that what states, cities and districts collect varies widely.

“Get the raw data. Look at the records of individuals [who’ve been punished] and whatever schools have on file,” she said, “and if they don’t have records, ask why.”

“Don’t stop your coverage at the splashy victim story. Go find out what happened. Push the story further along,” she said. Talk to state authorities and juvenile court judges. Ask what happens in schools: Do bullies face consequences? Are truant students treated as baby criminals? State and district education codes spell out the letter of the law.

“But districts don’t always follow the education code,” cautioned Alvarado-Mena. “Student rights and protections are codified in law, but in practice, those codes are not followed by many districts.” Which, of course, is a story in itself.

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