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Excerpted from: Jason P. Nance, Dismantling the School-to-prison Pipeline: Tools for Change, 48 Arizona State Law Journal 313 (Summer, 2016) (345 Footnotes)(Full Document) .


jasonnanceOur society has witnessed a distinct shift over the last three decades regarding how school administrators and teachers discipline students. Years ago, school administrators and teachers handled minor offenses internally. In too many schools today, however, it is becoming more common for schools to refer students to law enforcement for routine disciplinary matters. In 2005, five-year-old Ja'eisha Scott threw a temper tantrum after her teacher ended a classroom math exercise counting jelly beans. Although Ja'eisha eventually settled down in the school administrator's office, the school called the police. Upon arrival, three police officers handcuffed, arrested, and placed Ja'eisha in the back of a police car for three hours even though Ja'eisha's mother arrived shortly after the arrest. In 2007, six-year-old Desre'e Watson was arrested for throwing a temper tantrum in an elementary school. The police had to put the handcuffs around Desre'e's biceps because her wrists were too small. The police took Desre'e to the county jail where she was fingerprinted, photographed, and charged with a felony and two misdemeanors. Schools have involved law enforcement in many routine offenses such as dress code violations, arriving late to school, bringing cell phones to class, passing gas, texting, and stealing two dollars from a classmate. Several scholars refer to this dramatic shift in school disciplinary practices as the “criminalization of school discipline.”

While precise national data are unavailable, data from the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection (CRD Collection) suggest disturbing trends. According to those estimates, during the 2011-2012 school year, schools referred approximately 260,000 students to law enforcement, and approximately 92,000 students were arrested on school property during the school day or at school-sponsored events. Local data provide additional sobering evidence of this growing problem, especially in light of the substantial evidence that many of these referrals to law enforcement were for minor offenses. Furthermore, the number of student suspensions and expulsions have dramatically increased in recent years. According to the CRD Collection, approximately 3.45 million students were suspended at least one time during the 2011-2012 school year, and approximately 130,000 were expelled from school during that same time period. This recent movement is troubling not only because of the lost instruction time, but empirical studies demonstrate that a suspended or expelled student is more likely to drop out of school, commit a crime, get arrested, and become incarcerated.

Another layer to this complex problem is academic underachievement. Too often educators teach students who have acute needs, but current federal and state education funding laws do not provide adequate resources for schools to address those needs. The result is that many of those students fall behind their peers, become disengaged and disillusioned with the educational process, misbehave, and drop out or are pushed out of school, which, again, significantly increases the probability of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system.

 Yet, the most alarming aspect of these recent negative disciplinary and achievement trends is that some student racial groups are disproportionately affected. National, state, and local data across all settings and at all school levels clearly demonstrate that school administrators and teachers discipline minority students, particularly African-American students, more harshly and more frequently than similarly-situated white students. Further, empirical data manifest the substantial achievement gaps that exist between minority students and white students at every grade level. Moreover, schools that serve primarily disadvantaged and underachieving minority students typically have access to fewer resources to educate students. Those same schools more often rely on extreme forms of discipline, punishment, and control, pushing disproportionately high numbers of minority students out of school and into the juvenile justice system.

Many have dubbed this pathway from school to prison for too many of our nation's students, but especially for students of color, as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” This article analyzes the problems and causes of the school-to-prison pipeline, as well as its disproportionate effect on minorities, and proposes comprehensive school-based solutions to reverse these appalling trends. It will proceed in three parts.

Part I discusses the negative effects associated with incarcerating, arresting, or excluding a student from school by means of a suspension or expulsion. It also includes a brief analysis of the causes of the school-to-prison pipeline. Furthermore, it highlights the disproportionate impact of the school-to-prison pipeline on students of color.

Part II outlines school-based solutions that lawmakers can support and educators can apply to improve safety, student behavior, and student achievement in their schools in place of overly-punitive measures that push students into the justice system.

Part III focuses specifically on school-based solutions aimed at eliminating or substantially reducing implicit bias that generates racial disparities in school discipline.