School is supposed to be a place where students learn democratic values and how to contribute to society. A bad mix of student behavior and school discipline policies, however, is making school a place where many students become rulebreakers and get enmeshed in a juvenile justice system which limits their opportunities and changes the trajectory of their lives.
These tragic scenarios describe the school to prison pipeline. In addition to the substantial personal wreckage and public cost, the pipeline leaks talent from the workforce in significant numbers.
According to The North Carolina School Justice Partnership, in 2018 over 10,400 students were referred to the justice system from the schools. About 40 percent of the referrals to the juvenile justice system are school-based. Only 8 percent of the referrals were for serious offenses. Most were for minor nonviolent transgressions which only work to overburden and clog the court system.[i]
The consequences of being suspended or expelled and becoming involved with the court system are long lasting. They include:
- Suspensions and expulsions increase the risk that students will drop out of school, repeat a grade and engage in future delinquent conduct. A single suspension can triple the likelihood that a student will enter the juvenile justice system.
- Court involvement for minor misconduct increases the chances that the youth will reoffend, and the outcomes will worsen.
- For some students, a school-based referral can lead to a permanent record, which creates barriers to college financial aid, employment, housing and military eligibility.[ii]
We also know that many school discipline practices disproportionately impact certain groups of students. For example, youth of color are 2.5 times more likely to be referred to juvenile court and 1.5 times more likely to be placed in secure confinement than white youth. These hardships fall hard on African American students. African American students are 26% of the overall student population but receive 57% of suspensions.[iii]
The school to prison pipeline has spawned several programs to reverse these trends. North Carolina’s Raise the Age Act (S.L. 2017-57) authorized the establishment of School Justice Partnerships (SJP) to reduce out of school suspensions and expulsions and change disciplinary practices that push students out of school and into court.
While SJP and other programs have helped to reduce the number of school-based referrals and the negative outcomes of the school to prison pipeline, more needs to be done.
More needs to be done because too many policymakers fail to see the link between education and school-to-prison or education and the school-to-welfare pipeline.
To truly solve the school-to-prison pipeline, we need to look at our schools; how we educate and how we deliver education services. North Carolina spends $2.7 billion on Justice and Public Safety because it spends $9.5 billion badly on K-12 public schools.
The North Carolina Department of Public Safety reports that in 2018-19, the state housed 34,000 inmates in North Carolina’s minimum, medium and d prisons at an average cost of $103.32 per day, or an annual cost of $37,712. In 2018-19, North Carolina spent an average of $9,865 per pupil to educate children in the public schools.[iv]
School attendance policies fuel school to prison pipeline
Housing patterns and economics help create areas of high poverty concentrations of minority students. It is also true that high poverty minority students are likely to be assigned to low performing schools and have no option to access a better school. When these students have discipline problems that require suspensions or expulsions, the opportunity for a better future vanishes for many students. But too many fail to recognize that we’ve stacked the deck against these kids.
Giving parents the opportunity to choose a school that best fits the academic and social needs of their child can dramatically curtail the school-to-prison pipeline.
Providing educational opportunity can help to reverse these trends. Every teacher knows that a seventh grader who is struggling academically is more likely to engage in disruptive behavior than the average student. Reliance on suspension or expulsion rates only allows schools to hide the underlying reasons for misbehavior.
Can school choice really sever the school-to prison pipeline?
A growing body of research say so. Six studies show that school choice can reduce crime and incarceration. Researchers in North Carolina found that entering a charter school in ninth grade reduced the rate at which students were convicted of felonies by 36 percent and reduced the rate at which they were convicted of misdemeanors by 38 percent when compared to students in traditional public schools. Two other studies by Dr. Patrick Wolfe and Corey DeAngelis found that students using the Milwaukee voucher program were significantly less likely to commit crimes than their matched peers in traditional public schools by the time they reached 22 to 28 years of age.
However, there are other benefits.
North Carolina’s highly popular Opportunity Scholarship Program provides over 12,000 low- income students the chance at a better education. A survey of parents of Opportunity Scholarship recipients found that 94 percent of parents graded their child’s school an A or B. An evaluation of test scores of first year recipients of the Opportunity Scholarship Program —
a state-funded voucher program for low income students — found results showing “positive” in math and “statistically significant” in language.
If we are truly serious about turning off the school-to-prison pipeline, we must be concerned about behavior and discipline but also recognize our subpar schools help to fuel the school-to-prison pipeline.
We must do all we can to keep students out of jail. Part of doing this is giving students the opportunity to attend schools where they are safe and engaged in learning and the surrounding community. And the best way to engage students is to empower parents to choose a school that fits their child’s academic and social needs. When that happens, we’ll truly start to turn off the school-to-prison pipeline. Now is the time to begin.
[i] Fact Sheet, School Justice Partnership of North Carolina, A Program to Keep Kids in School and Out of Court, SJP.NCCOURTS.GOV
[ii] Fact Sheet, School Justice Partnership of North Carolina, A Program to Keep Kids in School and Out of Court, SJP.NCCOURTS.GOV
[iii] Fact Sheet, School Justice Partnership of North Carolina, A Program to Keep Kids in School and Out of Court, SJP.NCCOURTS.GOV
[iv] Statistical Profile of the Public Schools of North Carolina. Available online at: http://apps.schools.nc.gov/ords/f?p=145:32:::NO:::