Nineteen youths accepted AIR’s invitation to talk about how harsh school discipline has impacted them and the risks and challenges of the “school-to-prison” pipeline in front of an audience of policymakers and practitioners who work on juvenile justice and related issues. The participants, ages 16 to 24, spoke at the January 16 listening session, “Roundtable: The Perspectives of Young People Affected by Harsh School Discipline” at AIR headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The school-to-prison pipeline is the relationship between widespread school suspensions and expulsions and resulting involvement in the juvenile justice system. Evidence shows that students who are suspended or expelled for minor offenses are much more likely to repeat a grade, not graduate, or enter the juvenile justice system. Policies that were once instituted for safety reasons to prevent serious infractions, such as weapon carrying or use of illicit drugs, have crept into discipline practices related to tardiness and violating dress codes. Growing evidence shows that these policies and practices have a disproportionate impact on students of color, low-income students, and students with emotional and cognitive disabilities.
“It is unfair to set people up to fail,” said Kelsey, a 19 year-old participant from San Francisco. “You don’t know how it feels to constantly be pushed down, discouraged, constantly feeling uncomfortable, feeling unwanted, and like you can’t do it. Conversations like the ones we had today, getting the youth opinions need to constantly happen…don’t just listen, do something about it.”
The young people shared a wealth of ideas, stories, and experiences, including the importance of
- taking time to understand what might have caused a young person to act out or break a rule rather than immediately jumping to punishment;
- not punishing students for minor offenses through mechanisms that remove them from class and opportunities to learn;
- working with students, teachers, and School Resource Officers to create a positive, safe school community and an environment where everyone is treated fairly and seen as individuals;
- providing academic support and learning opportunities for youth who are struggling;
- fostering positive relationships with adults and peers who are available to provide support and act as a mentor; and
- understanding that what makes students feel safe can vary.
More than 20 listeners, including those from the U.S. Departments of Education, Justice, Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, and Labor, and other organizations attended the roundtable.
This event built on previous listening sessions that AIR facilitated for the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice and on requests from youth participants for an opportunity to speak directly about their experiences.