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Overcoming the “School-to-Prison Pipeline”

Saturday, March 03, 2012


Rose Pavlov, GoLocalWorcester Child Expert

From Recess to a Record: Criminalizing Kids By Denying Them Fair Access To Education

There is a nationwide trend of kids being pushed out of schools then to juvenile hall and finally into prisons based on everything from minor behavioral infractions to low academic performance. Among child advocates, it is referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” This “pipeline” refers to the sweeping (often arbitrary) use of standardized disciplinary measures (zero-tolerance policies), heavy in-school police presence or undertrained security personnel, relocation to nontraditional schools (often an academic waiting cell with limited opportunities), and yes, on-the-spot arrests. All of which bear the formidable risk of further sidelining low-income, minority, special needs, and/or at-risk students from their right to an education.

The Many Players in the "Pipeline" 

Institutions intended to help children, such as schools, the Department of Children and Families and Youth Services, and the juvenile justice system, are now being challenged on their lack of meaningful, informed action. This is amplified by legal sanctions such as A Child In Need of Services (CHINS) that permits parents (for kids under the age of 17) and school officials (for kids under the age of 16) to initiate a petition in Juvenile Court. Thereafter, a contract is issued with terms and conditions to be followed by the child in question. The person filing the CHINS petition must show the judge that the child defies home rules like regularly breaking curfew or school rules such as poor attendance, class disruptions, etc. Though the guidelines state that the kids have a voice during the process, many youth arrests are based on one or more primary CHINS offense(s). The larger problem here is that extreme penalties are being employed without considering each child’s unique circumstances and the nuances of each case. 

“Juveniles”: misused And misunderstood

The popular assumption that juveniles are children under the age of 18 is not accurate. Juveniles in the justice system are only considered minors up until the day before their 17th birthday. Beyond that, though still a teenager, they are considered an adult. Yet scientific research shows that a teenager’s brain development is a work in progress, especially in the areas of judgment and decision-making, thereby substantiating the horror of an adolescent being transplanted into the world of adult crimes. 

Focusing on pathology and faultfinding are key contributors to this epidemic. Many of these kids would benefit from support services such as counseling and mentoring if provided in a timely capacity. Early prevention rather than exclusive intervention is vital to challenging the “pipeline.” For instance, schools can cultivate a positive learning environment by using a data gathering model to support personalized action plans for kids with diverse developmental needs and learning styles. 

Subsequently, each child’s arrest must be clearly substantiated by evidence-based findings - not through documentation alone. An effective avenue would be a school committee hearing within each district. If every juvenile arrest were transparently identified by an actual testimony mandated to be shared with members of the school committee and community, these numbers would fall. 

Standing up against youth incarceration

According to the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, the school-to-prison pipeline is one of the most paramount civil rights violations in this U.S. to date. It provides eye-opening data on the effects of the “pipeline” approach on disadvantaged youth:

• In 2003, African-American youth made up 16% of the nation’s overall juvenile population, but accounted for 45% of juvenile arrests.

• While approximately 8.6% of public school children have been identified as having disabilities that impact their ability to learn, a recent survey of correctional facilities found that students with disabilities are represented in jail at a rate nearly four times that. 

The ACLU aligns with the Justice Law Center and Dignity in Schools in the fight against youth incarceration on multiple levels: the legal system, direct services/intervention for affected students, and community-driven campaigns to spur systemic change, respectively. 

Their (and others’) collective efforts are of mighty significance in the “school-to-prison pipeline” national story. Overcoming the vicious cycle of incarceration will allow each child the right to fulfill and experience their optimum potential.

Rose Pavlov is a cross-cultural positive child specialist and the founder of Ivy Child International.


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