Monday, June 19, 2017

Rethinking the School to Prison Pipeline

By Michelle Manno
JPI Guest Blogger

Last year’s civil rights survey by the Department of Education revealed some disturbing trends: Out-of-school suspensions for black students are common for preschoolers and a pattern of disciplining black students more than white students is consistent from kindergarten through the 12th grade.

Advocates for equity in education highlight the fact that many school districts emphasize the policing of students as opposed to counseling and are more committed to hiring security officers than school counselors. This approach helps create a “school-to-prison pipeline” that impacts students throughout their educational careers.

“Suspending a student for misbehavior usually makes things worse,” says Joshua Aronson, associate professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt, which recently launched [email protected]. Not only does the child miss instruction, but he or she is rejected by the community in a very public fashion.” 

The Department of Education survey collected data from public school districts during the 2013-2014 school year, and their analysis found that black preschool children were 3.6 times more likely than white children to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions. In the K-12 years, black students were suspended at rates almost four times higher than white students and expelled from school without educational services at a rate that was nearly double. They were more than two times more likely to be disciplined through the involvement of school security officers, such as a school-related arrest.

While policing in schools disproportionately affects students of color, research shows that it doesn’t increase safety. The Justice Policy Institute released a report on the school to prison pipe in 2011 titled Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools. They found that many schools have “School Resource Officers” who spend their time acting as law enforcement at schools. The presence of SRO’s resulted in disproportionate punishment rates for students of color, including suspensions and arrests, without actually making schools safer.

The Need for a Long-Term Solution
Some factors may be contributing to the fact that black students are disciplined at higher rates, including the racial bias of teachers. Yale University’s Walter Gilliam has spent more than a decade studying this trend, and he told NPR that most adults interpret disruptive behaviors differently and that these perceptions depend on the race of the child.

“We tend to hold African-American children as more culpable,” he said in the article. “And we think they're older than they are.”

And focusing on discipline as a method of dealing with behavior issues can have a long-term effect on students in many ways. They are too frequently absent from the classroom and miss out on all of the lifelong benefits that are derived from academic achievements.

“This punishes the child and marks them as a problem without uncovering the underlying reasons for the misbehavior, which typically is an unmet need,” says Aronson.

UCLA’s Civil Rights Project framed such sentiments in some hard data. A study by the Project shows that student suspensions cost the nation $35 billion in lost taxpayer revenue — by linking them to the “cost of keeping people in prison and paying for health care, since students who get suspended are more likely to drop out of school, earn less money, and get involved in the criminal justice system.”

A Counseling-Focused Approach
An effective alternative to discipline is to give teachers support to better address students’ behavioral issues, and school counselors play a key role in such a strategy.

“Schools need the resources to find out what students need and the resources to meet those needs,” says Aronson. “This may cost more in the short-term, but it is a mere fraction of the cost of incarcerating the high percentage of suspended students who will end up in prison.”

One example, outlined by NPR, is Van Ness Elementary in Washington, D.C., which trains teachers in Conscious Discipline and provides them with a support network that includes a staff social worker, a psychologist, and weekly visits from a clinical psychologist. Every pre-K classroom at the school also has a “safe space” where kids who are being disruptive can be peaceful and calm down — and preschoolers are taught calming techniques, like “breathing slowly into a pinwheel to make it spin.”

Unfortunately, in the current framework, more than 20 percent of high schools don’t even have a school counselor at all, and 1.6 million students attend a school with a sworn law enforcement officer but not a school counselor. To alter the dynamics of the school-to-prison pipeline, those kinds of odds need to change.

As JPI celebrates its 20th Anniversary, Education Under Arrest remains a great tool for understanding the effects of the school to prison pipeline. Work done by organizations like JPI and the Department of Education shows the importance of alternatives to policing in schools. By making positive investments in our students, we can create better schools and safer communities.

Michelle Manno is an education writer at 2U. She works with schools such as [email protected] – the online master's in school counseling and online master’s in mental health counseling from NYU Steinhardt – to create resources that support K-12 students. Say hi on Twitter @michellermanno.

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