Keeping Young People Out of Prison and in the Classroom
The “school-to-prison pipeline”
Today, nearly 95,000 youth under the age of 21 are in custody in publicly and privately operated facilities in the U.S. (Livsey, Sickmund, and Sladky, 2009). Increasingly, youth are finding themselves involved in the juvenile justice system as a result of school-related conduct.
Researchers suggest that this trend, known as the “school-to-prison pipeline” (Gonsoulin, Zablocki, & Leone, 2012; Hirschfield, 2008; Kim & Geronimo, 2009), is an unintended consequence of harsh school discipline policies such as “zero tolerance” and referring students to the police or courts for school code violations historically handled by schools (American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008; Osher et al., 2012).
Not surprisingly, harsh school discipline policies and practices have a disproportionate impact on students of color, poor students, and students with disabilities (Gonsoulin, Zablocki, & Leone, 2012; Osher et al., 2012). While there is no doubt that principals and administrators develop and implement such policies to create safe learning environments for the student body as a whole, the unintended consequences and disproportionate impact on some of our most at-risk children requires understanding factors that contribute to this trend, and strategies for taking a closer look at these policies.
Factors that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline
Two recent publications examine factors that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline and describe strategies for education professionals—such as principals, district-level staff, and administrators—to enhance schools’ capacities to keep students out of the courts and in the classroom (Gonsoulin, Zablocki, & Leone, 2012). In Building School and Teacher Capacity to Eliminate the School-to-Prison Pipeline, there are four main factors known to contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline:
- Racial disparities: African American students are three times more likely than White students to be suspended for behavioral offenses.
- Poor Conditions for Learning (CFL): Critical CFL, especially for youth at higher risk of poor educational outcomes, include physically and emotionally safe environments, caring connections between students and teachers, activities and curricula that engage and challenge students, and positive peer support. Without these conditions, students are more likely to engage in negative behaviors, disengage from school, and dropout.
- Family-school disconnection: A common trait of high-performing schools is a high level of involvement with families and the community. Families of children at risk are often estranged from schools, especially if their children have behavioral problems. Establishing a healthy relationship between schools and students’ families is vital for keeping youth motivated and engaged in the classroom.
- Failure to build the social and emotional capacity of students: The ability of teachers to develop students’ social and emotional skills, such as managing emotions, self-regulation, establishing healthy relationships, and maintaining self-awareness, is crucial for curbing disruptive student behavior.
In Safe Schools, Staff Development, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Gonsoulin et al. (2012) put forth strategies based on the premise that positive school climates create nurturing settings for students, support positive youth development, and minimize harsh ineffective responses to behavior problems. Specifically, they focus on professional development opportunities for school staff, given their critical role in shaping practice in school settings, creating open lines of communication, and addressing behavior problems through prevention and early intervention. Professional learning communities (or communities of practice) are one of the most effective tools that principals and administrators can use to train staff on how to create safe nurturing environments. Learning communities provide opportunities for staff to share experiences, practice new approaches to behavior problems, and engage in continuous dialogue about effective instructional practices.
Establishing effective learning communities
To develop effective professional learning communities that promote supportive school environments, the authors propose a three-tiered approach in which school personnel (e.g., principals, teachers, and school resource officers [SROs]) and community stakeholders (e.g., parents, law enforcement, mental health providers) engage in meetings and activities at varying levels of intensity.
At the first level, school personnel are encouraged to meet three to four times per year with community stakeholders to establish and nurture healthy relationships and communication between the school and the community at large. At the second level, individuals who interact with students daily, such as parents, teachers and SROs, are encouraged to meet monthly to learn about specific interventions for supporting youth, such as counseling, de-escalation tactics, and cognitive-behavioral interventions. These monthly meetings would also include review and assessment of specific strategies and how effective the strategies have been in dealing with students’ behavioral problems and engaging students. At the third and most intensive level, teachers, administrators, and SROs should meet weekly to discuss the quality of the school’s learning environment, issues affecting the teacher learning process, and solutions to those problems.
School-to-prison pipeline resources
To learn more about additional efforts nationwide to reduce the school-to-prison pipeline and keep young people in schools, check out the following resources:
- Supportive School Discipline Communities of Practice - An online resource for leaders in education and juvenile justice, such as judges, chief justices, school district superintendents, etc. to share information, publications, and strategies with one another around reducing the School to Prison Pipeline.
- Breaking Schools' Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. Council of State Governments
- Juvenile Court Referrals and the Public Schools: Nature and Extent of the Practice in Five States. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice.
- School-to-Prison Pipeline. American Civil Liberties Union.
- School-to-Prison Pipeline. New York Civil Liberties Union.
American Civil Liberties Union (2008). Locating the school-to-prison pipeline. Retrieved from http://www.aclu.org/racial-justice/school-prison-pipeline-fact-sheet-pdf
American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools? An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist 63(9), 852-862. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pubs/info/reports/zero-tolerance.pdf
Gonsoulin, S., Zablocki, M., & Leone, P. (2012). Safe schools, staff development, and the school to prison pipeline. Teacher Education and Special Education: The Journal of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, 35(4), 309-319.
Hirschfield, P. J. (2008). Preparing for prison? The criminalization of school discipline in the USA. Theoretical Criminology, 12, 79-101.
Osher, D., Coggshall, J., Colombi, G., Woodruff, D., Francois, S., & Osher, T. (2012). Building school and teacher capacity to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline. Teacher Education and Special Education: The Journal of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children, 35(4), 284-295.
Kim, C. Y., & Geronimo, I. (2009). Policing in schools: Developing a governance document for school resource officers in K-12 schools (ACLU White Paper). Retrieved from http://www.aclu.org/racial-justice/policing-schools-developing-governance-document-school-resource-officers-k-12-schools
Krezmien, M., Leone, P., Zablocki, M., & Wells, C. (2010). Juvenile court referrals and the public schools: Nature and extent of the practice in five states. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice. Available at http://ccj.sagepub.com/content/26/3/273.full.pdf+html
Livsey, S., Sickmund, M., and Sladky, A. (2009). Juvenile residential facility census, 2004. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/222721.pdf
Sedlak, A., & McPherson, K. (2010). Conditions of confinement: Findings from the Survey of Youth In Residential Placement. Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/227729.pdf