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8 Years In Prison for a Harmless Prank? Handcuffed for Doodling? The Increasing Criminalization of Students

Young people are being suspended, expelled and charged with criminal offenses for behavior as innocuous as doodling on a desk.

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The study revealed that “a student who was suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation was nearly three times as likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year.”  Several studies  have confirmed that the more time an expelled child spends away from school, the higher the chances that child will drop out and end up in criminal justice system, as Parker described.

According to Parker, public school disciplinary policies follow a pattern of discrimination, with African-American students and those with particular educational disabilities disproportionately likely to be pushed out of the classroom for disciplinary reasons. It has been  well documented  by organizations, such as the Campaign for Youth Justice, that “African-American youth are treated more harshly by the justice system than white youth, for the same offenses, at all stages of case processing.”  In 2003, the ACLU says that “African-American youth made up 16 percent of the nation’s overall juvenile population,  but accounted for 45 percent of juvenile arrests .”

The ACLU also notes that “8.6 percent of public school children have been identified as having disabilities that impact their ability to learn,” but “a recent survey of correctional facilities found that  students with disabilities are represented in jail at a rate nearly four times that .”

Parker addressed the negative economic costs of these policies:

“The school-to-prison pipeline, in addition to being supremely unfair, is an inefficient and irrational approach. You pay more to keep someone in jail and you lose the contributions they can make to society, so it would be better to spend the money up front to make sure that everyone got an actual education and stayed in school than it is to push them out and have them on the street and then later in jail.”

Better Alternatives

A PBS Frontline investigation documents numerous  studies dating as far back as 1978 have alerted policymakers to the fact that “juveniles who receive harsher penalties when tried as adults are not "scared straight." Instead, after their release, they tend to reoffend sooner and more often than those treated in the juvenile system.” Similarly, “research suggests that the overuse of suspensions and expulsions may actually  increase the likelihood of later criminal misconduct .”

In a 2008 report, the American Psychological Association  reportedly found no evidence that zero-tolerance policies were effective at keeping schools safe. So why do schools continue to implement them?

When I posed this question to the ACLU's Dennis Parker, he answered:

“A lot of what’s been done has been a knee-jerk reaction and not necessarily one that’s research based or even based on any real experience. I think there’s a perception that schools are these really unsafe jungles when actually there’s less crime now than there was 20 years ago, and so people are responding again to that perception rather than reality.”

Parker suggested that the best way to combat these policies is by "educating school boards, school administrators, parents, anyone who’s involved in the schools with the fact that there are alternatives to assure safety that don’t have these negative educational results."

The ACLU's Racial Justice Program has been on the forefront of this issue, advocating that “schools eliminate zero-tolerance policies and instead adopt  positive behavioral supports  and other early interventions, which have been proven to improve the school climate.”

In June, the  Washington Post  reported that more and more schools around the nation are beginning to reexamine their zero-tolerance policies, reflecting a changing attitude "driven by high suspension rates, community pressure, legal action and research findings." 

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