The Persistence of the School to Prison Pipeline

Recently, a local reporter contacted me to comment on a case in which a 16-year-old African-American boy with disabilities, who was a sophomore at Madison West High School, and under Dane County Juvenile Court monitoring when he ran away from home. While he was gone, the student’s home detention court monitor in charge of checking up on his school attendance and behavior, asked West High’s dean of students to write a letter to the court about him. The letter characterized the student as a troublemaker who was a bad influence on other students.

As the front page story stated, the dean of students’ letter to the court opened with the following statement, “I write because I think (the student’s) transfer here from (a suburban high school) has ultimately not been good for him and frankly not good for West.” Despite this statement, the boy had not been expelled. The boy’s mother believes that letter resulted in her son being ordered to remain in juvenile detention for another 3 weeks.

As if the dean of students’ letter did not cause enough harm to the boy, according to the newspaper report, “the court commissioner decided to extend the student’s detention, referencing “impulsiveness” described in his individualized education plan (IEP) and the need to come up with a plan to address it.”

I did not represent this student, but due to my background in school discipline and special education matter, the reporter contacted me, and as she reported, I told her that I had never heard of an IEP being used in court to detain a student. I went on to say that this scenario:

is a direct example of the “school to prison pipeline,” the idea that students — particularly children of color and students with disabilities — are pushed out of school into the criminal justice system due to discriminatory discipline practices, lack of resources to support students with special needs, police in schools and other methods.

“In (this example) you’ve got an administrator contacting the juvenile justice authorities about what’s going on in school, and you’ve got an IEP being used against a child.

“You see that children of color and children with disabilities are disproportionately represented in the school to prison pipeline… It is disturbing that we even have such a thing in our society. Schools should be designed not to end up incarcerating children but to educate them.”

The question, of course, is why the school to prison pipeline continues to persist. Many advocates have been fighting against it and while some reductions in suspensions rates have occurred, the trend lines in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest school district are troubling.

In the 2015-16 school year (the most recent data available), Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) suspended:

  • 10,267 students or 13.6% of all its students up from 10.6% the year before;
  • 8,227 African-American students or 20.3% of those students;
  • 436 White students or 4.4% of those students;
  • 3,044 students with disabilities or 19.7% of those students;
  • 7,223 students without disabilities or 12% of those students.

Thus, a disproportionately high number of MPS suspensions are of African-American students and students with disabilities.

Racine, which is the 5th largest school district in Wisconsin, had the second highest number of suspensions in Wisconsin that year. That school district suspended:

  • 2,151 students or 11.2% of all its students up from 9.5% the year before;
  • 1,292 African-American students or 25.5% of those students;
  • 395 White students or 5% of those students; and
  • for reasons that are unclear, Racine has not reported the number of its suspended students who have disabilities.

Despite lacking the disability information, the Racine data reveals the troubling trend of racial disproportionality in school discipline.

As this ACLU infographic shows, this is not an isolated problem, as the national data on the school to prison pipeline continues to persist.

090116-sttp-graphic

In the Madison case, the newspaper report concluded with a bit of good news. The dean of students who wrote the damning letter to the court conceded that:

“As an educator, I need to be an advocate for our students, and in this instance, I fell short. There isn’t any excuse for that, and I recognize the negative impact it had on this young person’s life,” she said. “I am learning from it, and I am committed to supporting and serving all students going forward.”

Moreover, the boy has since left West and enrolled in an alternative program in the district. Although his mother said she will have trouble ever trusting the district again, she told the reporter that her son is already doing better in the new environment.

“He really likes it,” she said.

When I sent a friend the article in which I am quoted, he noted the good news at the end of the article, but then he went on to say,

“Maybe this is the heart of things. Instead of focusing on a student’s needs for a smaller alternative program to further his education, it got framed as needing to protect the school from a dangerous student. In the name of “school safety,” we’re willing to harm individual kids-disproportionately kids of color and with disabilities. I think this is how Madison does racism. We never use the language of it but the impacts are just as bad.

While the persistence of the school to prison pipeline may have many reasons, one common theme is the persistence of racism and discrimination against students with disabilities. Until we tackle those issues, improved policies alone will not solve the problem.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

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