Reducing the “School-to-Prison” Pipeline (October/November 2015)

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By Susan Krumholz
President, UMass Faculty Federation

I am writing this month about something that may not directly concern the union, but is vitally important to the future of our students (and also my field of study).
Two bills before the Massachusetts legislature, Senate bill S.842 - "An Act decriminalizing non-violent and verbal student misconduct" - and Senate bill S.297 - "An Act further defining the role of school resource officers" - both sponsored by Senator Pat Jehlen, could begin that process. It is time to reduce the number of students whose educational experience is brought to a rapid halt by the criminal/legal system, and supporting these bills will at least move us in the right direction.
We have all heard about the school-to-prison pipeline, an accurate description of policies and practices that move children from school into the criminal/legal system. This has been a growing social problem for at least the past decade, fueled by inadequate funding and resources for our public schools, "zero-tolerance" policies, and the rising reliance on school resource officers for in-school discipline. The brunt of these actions is disproportionately felt by students of color and students with disabilities. But they clearly affect us all.<
The social costs of suspending, expelling or arresting large numbers of students for minor offenses, especially those who are most in need of the support and structure offered by school, is profound. We will pay as we lose the contributions to society these students might make if allowed to continue their education, and we will pay again when we allocate increasing dollars that could go to education to jails and prisons. For those of us in higher education, the profound absence of men of color in our classrooms is but one cost. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, in 2008 "32.6 percent of the non-Hispanic white population over the age of 25 holds a college degree compared to 19.6 percent of adult blacks." The imbalance is more significant if we factor in gender.
Reductions in financial and personnel support for our public schools, often exacerbated by the transfer of funds to private charter schools, lead to overcrowded classrooms and fewer support staff such as librarians and guidance counselors. The easiest way to respond to the added stress on teachers was to institute "zero-tolerance" policies--punishment, often suspension or expulsion, would result from even the most ordinary rule violation, regardless of extenuating circumstances. Rule enforcement, no longer an administrative add-on, became a full time job. <
The introduction of full time police officers dates back to the late 1980s when there was talk of youth as "super-predators." And though this notion was abandoned, the movement toward police in schools was only heightened by the publicity surrounding school shootings a decade later. When I was in high school the Assistant Principal dealt with discipline issues (I know this first hand!). If you got in trouble you most likely had to stay after school. On rare occasions someone got suspended for a day. Now when a teacher has a problem they call in the SRO. And the SRO, doing what s/he is trained to do, arrests the student. In a study a few years ago of 11 school districts in Texas it was found that out of 3,500 student arrests only 20% involved violence or a weapon (including fists). Stories abound about special needs (or black or latino) students being arrested for incidents that began with a teacher asking them to be quiet or sit still. And if students are not arrested but are suspended or expelled, studies find their likelihood of coming into contact with the juvenile legal system within a year is three times as great. Research in New York found that African-American students were twice as likely to be suspended as White students, Hispanic students were 1.5 times as likely as White students. And this disparity was even higher in schools with increased security.
How would the proposed legislation address these problems? Senate bill S.842 takes a step towards limiting criminal charges that can be brought against students by excluding students from prosecution for disturbing an assembly or for disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace when that conduct occurs "within school buildings or grounds or in the course of school-related events." This could reduce arrests of students considerably. Senate bill S.297 will be significant in that is proscribes the skills an SRO should have, including training in de-escalation and conflict resolution, and it requires an MOU between the local police department and the school superintendent.Recent studies suggest that at least some of the concerns regarding SROs stem from lack of role clarity. The bill also contains an oversight requirement that could improve the public's ability to track arrests made in schools. In conjunction these bills could make progress toward halting the school-to-prison pipeline in Massachusetts.
With all this in mind, I would like to make a pitch for restorative practices in schools. According to the Center for Restorative Justice at Suffolk University, restorative justice practices in schools have been used successfully for &ldquo;classroom management, collaborative pedagogy, student support, emotional awareness and literacy, building a positive school climate, alternate discipline&rdquo; and more. If anyone still wonders whether restorative practices can alter a school environment, we have numerous examples in schools from Philadelphia to Oakland and San Francisco to right here in Charlestown, Massachusetts.These schools have shown that building healthy and respectful relationships among students and between students and educators would reduce the need for involving the criminal/legal system in our student&rsquo;s lives.&nbsp;</p>