What happens to education when students, from preschool to high school, are subjected to disciplinary policies that more closely resemble policing than teaching? Around the country, advocates are collecting data illustrating the devastating effects of what they call the "school-to-prison pipeline," where student behavior is criminalized, children are treated like prisoners and, all too often, actually end up behind bars. "The school-to-prison pipeline refers to interlocking sets of relationships at the institutional/structural and the individual levels," explains Mariame Kaba, founding director at Project NIA, an advocacy group in Chicago fighting youth incarceration. "All of these forces work together to push youth of color, especially, out of schools and into unemployment and the criminal legal system."
This fall, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) issued a report focusing on how the criminalization of school discipline is profoundly harming children's educational opportunities in New York City. "Once a child is subjected to suspensions or arrests in school, they are less likely to graduate and more likely to end up involved in the criminal justice system," says Donna Lieberman, the NYCLU's executive director. "That means they're on a path to prison, not graduation." The report demonstrates that the city's black and low-income students, as well as students with disabilities, are disproportionately affected by suspensions, expulsions and arrests – which have skyrocketed under Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration. The data also shows a correlation between neighborhoods whose students experience high rates of suspension and those with high rates of stop-and-frisk, the controversial policing tool ruled unconstitutional earlier this year.
The number of students suspended from New York City schools each year has more than doubled under Bloomberg, from roughly 29,000 in 2001 to almost 70,000 in 2011. Half of those suspended were black, despite black students comprising less than a third of the student population. Black students with disabilities have the highest rates of suspension, almost three times higher than their white disabled peers. White students with disabilities are also suspended at higher rates than their non-disabled peers. "It's a lot about race," says Lieberman. "Black students are far more likely than [non-disabled] white students and white students with special needs to be suspended from school."
And the problem is not unique to New York City. Texas Appleseed, a social and economic justice advocacy group, filed a complaint earlier this year with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights alleging that disciplinary policies in Texas schools have a disparate impact on African-American students. "Whether you're looking at suspensions or expulsions, or whether you're looking at ticketing for Disorderly Conduct or Disruption of Class," says Deborah Fowler, deputy director at Texas Appleseed, "in each of those cases, you're going to see African American students over-represented." Their data shows that black students in Texas schools are more than 30 percent more likely to receive "discretionary" disciplinary action, often ensnaring them in the adult criminal court system even if they're under 18.
Similarly, black students in Chicago public schools are disproportionately targeted for school-based arrests, representing about 40 percent of the student population but 75 percent of those arrested, according to a Project NIA report released earlier this year. Kaba says that the massive closures of public schools in Chicago's poor black communities have exacerbated school pushout, leaving thousands of children without access to their neighborhood schools.
In New York City, children in certain neighborhoods are subject to the same aggressive police tactics that dictate daily life in their broader communities. Side by side, the NYCLU report compares one map illustrating neighborhoods where police most frequently stopped and frisked school-age youth with another map illustrating rates of suspension by zip code. "Students who live in neighborhoods that have high rates of stop-and-frisk are more likely to be suspended than students who live in low stop-and-frisk zones, regardless of where they go to school," explains Lieberman. While she emphasizes that correlation does not equal causation, she adds: "It is abundantly clear that the policies of the Bloomberg administration with regard to law enforcement and with regard to school safety and discipline are policies that evidence an utter disdain for their impact on communities of color, particularly young people of color."
The NYCLU report paints a picture of communities whose young residents are subjects of police control whether they are in school or on the streets, and whose most vulnerable young people are targeted rather than supported. The district with the most low-income students – District 7 in the Bronx, with over 85 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch – also has the highest rate of suspensions. And the harsh disciplinary policies don't just affect older students. In the academic year of 2010-2011, there were 93 four-year-olds suspended, one-third of whom were disabled. Furthermore, the fleet of School Safety Officers (SSOs) in schools – at over 5,000, they almost double the amount of guidance counselors, according to Lieberman – are not trained to work with special needs children who may require unique emotional or behavioral support.
The disappearance of Queens teenager Avonte Oquendo from his school in early October illuminates what Lieberman says is a structural failure of New York schools to support the needs of their students. Avonte, who has autism and is nonverbal, was seen by an SSO in the building before he left. "[The SSO] didn't know the child had special needs. So what we have is the illusion of safety, and unfortunately, the results can be disastrous." There are roughly 123,000 special education students in New York City schools. Nearly one-third of all suspensions are served by students with disabilities even though they are only one sixth of the population. Only 27 percent of disabled students graduated on time in 2011; that number decreases to a remarkable 5 percent when looking only at students in self-contained special education classrooms.
As the country's largest school district, argues the NYCLU, New York City is poised to address the school-to-prison-pipeline not just locally, but nationally. They recommend putting an end to zero-tolerance policies and the criminalization of school discipline, as well as increased training and support for the SSOs charged with keeping students safe. "We are excited at the prospect of a new administration in city hall that is sensitive to the challenges facing all young people, especially young people of color, and committed to overhauling those policies and adopting an approach that ensures that all kids have a fair shake in our society," says Lieberman. "In order to have a fair shake, you need to have access to a decent education and be treated with respect, whether it's in schools or on the street."
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