WASHINGTON – In schools today, Black students get suspended at a rate that is more than triple the rate of their White classmates. As the uneven enforcement of zero tolerance policies disconnect minority students from their schools, juvenile detention centers and, in some cases, adult prisons welcome them with open arms.
Data collected by the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education found that 70 percent of students arrested or handed over to law enforcement were Black and Latino.
“For many young people our schools are increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system,” said Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) during a Senate subcommittee hearing in December that addressed the consequences of the school-to- prison pipeline. “What’s especially concerning about this phenomenon is that it deprives our kids of a fundamental right to education.”
Fearing the long-term social and economic impacts of the school-to-prison pipeline, lawmakers, educators, parents and students have united to keep children in classrooms and out of courtrooms.
The school-to-prison pipeline has roots in the zero tolerance rhetoric popularized by the war on drugs. In an effort to get tough on school violence, President Bill Clinton signed the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994. Clinton called for more police on school campuses and even funded the project through his Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) In Schools Program.
Overall, COPS has contributed nearly a billion dollars to hire more than 6,300 school resource officers (SROs) and expand the use of metal detectors and surveillance cameras to make schools safer.
But school administrators soon began to use the SROs to discipline students for minor infractions once handled in the principal’s office. Across the nation, police arrested students for shoving matches, writing on desks and being disruptive in class.
According to The Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles, Calif., suspensions deprived 17 percent of Black students of that fundamental right during the 2009-2010 survey period. During that same period, 5 percent of White students were suspended.
The report said: “Besides the obvious loss of time in the classroom, suspensions matter because they are among the leading indicators of whether a child will drop out of school, and because out-of-school suspension increases a child’s risk for future incarceration.”
Black students in Illinois suffer the highest rate of suspensions in the country at 25 percent. The highest rate for White students (10 percent) was found in Wyoming. Illinois schools suspended 42 percent of Black students with disabilities at least once.
During the recent Senate subcommittee hearing, Edward Ward, a graduate of Orr Academy High School in Chicago, testified that even though he was an honor student, his school days were “nerve-racking.” and “tense” because of the ever-present threat of suspension and expulsion.
Ward recounted classmates getting suspended for minor infractions such as not displaying proper identification, using cell phones or wearing headphones. Students lived in a constant state of fear of violence spurred by drug activity and gangs on the outside and swift punishment meted out by SROs and security guards on the inside of school.
Ward, now a sophomore political science major at DePaul University in Chicago, testified that security guards victimized the students at Orr, dispensing physical, oral and even sexual harassment so often that it was “normalized” and that “students didn’t think to make formal complaints and didn’t trust that they would be listened to anyway.”
In 2011, suspensions for misconduct topped 66 percent at Orr Academy High School while the district average was 39.3 percent.
Chicago Public Schools records showed that the dropout rate at Orr Academy High School was 21.4 percent in 2012 –three times the district average of 7.6 percent.
Ward said that he could slowly see the determination to get an education fade from the faces of his peers.
“They were convinced that they no longer mattered, that their voices would continue to be completely ignored,” said Ward.
For civil rights advocates working to reform school discipline codes, ignoring the voices of students is not an option.
“Part of the problem that we have found across the country is that we’re not talking to each other,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a justice and civil rights advocacy group. “We can’t arrest our away out of this issue. We can’t suspend our way out of this issue. Young people have to be part of the conversation; schools have to be part of it. It’s about getting everyone at the table to work towards a solution.”
Steven C. Teske, chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga. witnessed first-hand how minor schools became part of the judicial systems. After joining the bench in 1999, Judge Teske was shocked when he learned that nearly one-third of his cases were school-related ,many of them for low-level offenses. Five years later, school referrals jumped 1,000 percent and 80 percent of them were for Black students. In 2003, the graduation rate for Clayton County plummeted to 58 percent.
“The more students we arrested, suspended and expelled from our school system, the juvenile crime rate in the community significantly increased, said Teske said in his appearance before the Senate subcommittee. “These kids lost one of the greatest protective buffers against delinquency – school connectedness.”
Teske decided something had to be done.
He assembled a number of stakeholders, from school administrators to the chief of police, to address school disciplinary policies and the role of the juvenile court system. After meeting for nine months, the group created the “School Referral Reduction Protocol,” which limited when police could arrests students and refer them to courts.
Teske also organized the Clayton County Collaborative Child Study Team, a multi-discpinary panel to serve as a single point of entry for all child service agencies, including schools, to work with the most at-risk children and families to steer the students back into the classrooms and a positive learning environment.
Utilizing the School Referral Reduction Protocol court referrals dipped 86 percent for fighting offenses and 64 percent for school disruption offenses for Black students. Graduation rates in Clayton County climbed more than 20 percent.
According to a study by The Alliance for Excellent Education increasing male graduation rates by 5 percent can save taxpayers nearly $5 billion annually in societal and economic costs associated with crime.
When annual earnings for those who graduate is added to the mix, the United States could see $7.7 billion in benefits, The Alliance reported.
“The Clayton experience is not a novel idea,” Teske said. “It’s grounded in research that supports common sense notions that keeping kids in school will increase graduation rates, that in turn will positively impact community safety and improve our economy.”
By Freddie Allen
NNPA Washington Correspondent