Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Schools Tackle the 'Pipeline to Prison'

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Schools Tackle the 'Pipeline to Prison'

Article excerpt

A student who did bike tricks in a crosswalk during dismissal was charged with disorderly conduct. Another who entered school grounds while on suspension was accused of criminal trespassing. A third, who tampered with an elevator, causing "public annoyance and alarm," was hit with a criminal mischief charge.

The three incidents were among hundreds in New Jersey schools last spring that resulted in calls to police, according to a report by a member of the attorney general's Juvenile Justice Commission.

In South Carolina, the removal from a classroom of a student who refused to follow the directions of a police officer captured national attention because of the violent way it was handled. But juvenile justice experts in New Jersey say they have long been concerned about a deeper, more pervasive phenomenon -- school leaders calling police for minor infractions that are then dealt with in the criminal justice system when they might have been handled better through social services.

While New Jersey has been credited with reducing the percentage of juveniles who wound up in the criminal justice system over the past decade, there is a critical issue that is being debated: Are too many being charged for minor offenses and being branded juvenile delinquents, something that can have an impact on the rest of their lives?

"When that first fight takes place at school, when a young person is bullied, what do we do?" said Kevin Brown, executive director of New Jersey's Juvenile Justice Commission, speaking to about 350 educators and law enforcement officers from across New Jersey at a forum advocates titled "Avoiding the School-to-Prison Pipeline."

"Do we work with families?" Brown asked. "Do we line up services? Do we make sure young people have support they need so they don't go down that pipeline" to prison?

To be clear, no one is arguing that police have no place in school when public safety is threatened. With school shootings becoming an ever more common occurrence and President Obama decrying the country's gun violence, the same experts who worry about the criminalization of student misbehavior acknowledge that police play a vital role in protecting schools.

"Certainly, if there is an active shooter situation or if there is clearly a law enforcement criminal offense that is happening, that is a different situation," said Abby Anderson, executive director of the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance, referring to offenses that pose a public threat.

But across the United States, calls are growing to end the criminalization of student misbehavior that critics say disproportionately affects African-American and special-education students. Critics say students are more likely to drop out of school and to face more serious legal problems if they are charged as youths. They say that violations such as fighting, disrupting classrooms and writing graffiti, once handled in school, don't merit a police response. And they are asking for school-based police to focus on student outreach, not discipline.

The conversation about policing in schools is happening across the country and at the White House, as more groups question American incarceration rates and as controversial school incidents make news. New Jersey has already made inroads to reduce its juvenile detention population, cutting it by 60 percent over the past decade. This has been done in part by steering students who are charged with minor infractions to committees intended to help them, instead of courts.

A statewide report shows that police were notified by school officials in 5,289 instances in the last academic year. In nearly half of those cases, a criminal complaint was filed with police or by police. …

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