Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

School Discipline Feeds the "Pipeline to Prison": As School Discipline Moves from the Principal's Office to the Courthouse, Children Are Poorly Served

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

School Discipline Feeds the "Pipeline to Prison": As School Discipline Moves from the Principal's Office to the Courthouse, Children Are Poorly Served

Article excerpt

Schools in Texas and across the country historically have been safe places for teachers to teach and students to learn, even before it became routine to assign police officers to patrol public schools and for some larger districts to create their own police departments (Cornell, 2006). But, ever since "The Blackboard Jungle" became a major motion picture more than 50 years ago, popular media has fed public concerns about juvenile delinquency, "youth predators," and out-of-control school crime.

Those fears are not supported by available state and national crime data, which document very few incidents of youth violence involving weapons in the nation's public schools from the 1950s to the present (Rubel, 1978). However, extensive publicity surrounding very isolated incidents of horrific school violence, such as the Columbine High School shootings, succeeded in intensifying those fears--leading to an expansion of school-based policing and zero tolerance discipline. In Texas, common school misbehavior and such minor offenses as class disruption have been criminalized, with thousands of students--some as young as age 6--receiving Class C misdemeanor tickets each year for minor misbehavior at school that used to mean a trip to the principal's office (Fowler, 2011). The historical reality is that America's public schools are very safe, even those in high-crime neighborhoods. Yet, school discipline is becoming increasingly punitive, raising serious questions about its impact on students, schools, and the courts.

In Texas and in many other states, school discipline has increasingly moved from the schoolhouse to the courthouse. Texas Appleseed, part of a net-work of public interest law centers in 16 states and Mexico City, spent three years researching how schools' discretionary decisions to suspend, expel, and/or criminalize student misbehavior contribute to student push out, dropout, and ultimately to what researchers call the "school-to-prison pipeline" (Fowler, 2007).

According to a study by the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University (2005), the single greatest predictor of future involvement in the juvenile system is a history of disciplinary referrals at school. Those findings include:

* Holding all other risk factors statistically constant, students involved in one or more disciplinary incidents were 23.4 times more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system.

* Each additional disciplinary infraction increased that likelihood by 1.5%, and each day a student was suspended from school increased the probability of referral to the justice system by 0.1%.

* Numerous studies by national experts in education, criminal justice, and mental health have established a link between school dropout rates and incarceration. In Texas and nationally, high school dropouts constitute a large percentage of inmates in juvenile and adult prisons (Dillon, 2009).

While every student must be held accountable for his or her behavior in the classroom, Appleseed's research into Texas public schools' discretionary application of a range of student discipline uncovered some disturbing patterns:

* Wide variation in disciplinary referral rates between school districts suggests that where a student attends school, and not the nature of the offense, determines the likelihood of disciplinary action.

* Discretionary school decisions to suspend, expel, refer to an alternative school, and/

or issue a Class C misdemeanor ticket for nonviolent misbehavior disproportionately affects African-American and special education students.

* Young children are caught in Texas' school-to-prison pipeline.

* Though good information is readily available about research-based programs that have proven successful in reducing disciplinary problems and improving academics, few districts are implementing such programs.

School disciplinary practices clearly can have un-intended consequences. …

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