By Leah Robertson
On April 15, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute hosted a discussion on how policymakers, community advocates, and school administrators can work together to change existing policies and practices to ensure that schools lead all students down pathways toward success, not prisons.
Panelists Deputy Director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy (CCLP) Dana Shoenberg, Campaign for Youth Justice Policy Director Carmen Daugherty, and Mexican American Legal Defense and Education al Fund (MALDEF) Regional Counsel James Ferg-Cadima spoke about the disparate and detrimental affects the school-to-prison pipeline has on today’s youth, emphasizing that there are better alternatives that legislators and voters can take action on.
Daugherty provided some background and an explanation of the school-to-prison pipeline and its disparate effects on Latino youth. In particular, she explained how the pipeline perpetuates itself cyclically. In addition, Shoenberg utilized this “cycle” metaphor to explain the mechanisms by which zero tolerance policies discriminate against youth of color and results in poorer student performance and disengagement. Zero tolerance policies have evolved from more objective categories of behavior, such as bringing weapons to school, to a much more subjective standard, i.e., disrespecting a teacher. These subjective standards disproportionately affect children of color and children with special needs. Zero tolerance policies punish rather than understand and address underlying causes of misbehavior and are seen more often in urban schools and schools that primarily serve youth of color, and contribute to what education specialists call the “achievement gap.”
Unfortunately, rather than attempt to remedy this cycle, Congress is currently considering adding more police officers to schools, which only exacerbates the issue. Police presence on school campuses have shown only to stimulate the pipeline without leading to safer schools, particularly for students of color because police officers, rather than trained counselors and teachers, are referred to handle behavioral issues. These “School Resource Officers” (SROs) are less likely to be trained in adolescent development and management and are more likely to refer kids to the justice system, leading them straight down the pipeline to prison for minor infractions characteristic of teenagers.
When funding goes to police or SROs rather than teachers and school counselors, students do not have the positive behavioral supports they need to stay engaged and achieve academic progress. Additionally when school administrators relinquish to SROs their disciplinary responsibilities, we see an increase of referrals to the juvenile justice system, further pushing children out of school. This is of particular importance because police in schools are called in for a variety of behaviors only about 5 percent of which are criminal offenses, but many of which are nevertheless referred to the justice system.
The good news is there is plenty that Congress can do to remedy this situation. Ferg-Cadima and Shoenberg left the audience with the call on Congress to:
Collect and research data regarding school discipline practices in their district;
Pressure the While House and Departments of Education and Justice to issue disciplinary guidance; and
Consider passing legislation including the Youth Promise Act and reauthorize and support the President’s budget for the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.
We support the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute for hosting this discussion and for making this issue a priority, and we hope that Congress will take action to ensure the best future for all of America’s children.