When Judge Steven Teske took the bench in 1999, about one-third of the cases on his Clayton County, Georgia juvenile court docket came from school referrals for low-risk misdemeanor offenses, such as disrupting class or small hallway scuffles. And as the number of kids arrested and suspended grew, juvenile crime in the community increased.
He was witnessing the effects of what many call the “school to prison pipeline,” where student discipline is handled through suspensions and referrals to law enforcement.
At least 400 activists, students and stakeholders listened to Teske and congressional, federal, state and local officials testify about the effects of the “school to prison pipeline” at a hearing of the U.S. Senate subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on Wednesday (December 12), convened by Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin. While Teske worked with community stakeholders to reduce the number of school-based cases coming into court, in many other places, the strong ties between schools and the juvenile justice system continue.
“My school's environment was very tense; the halls were full of school security officers whose only purpose seemed to be to serve students with detentions or suspensions,” recalled Edward Ward, a DePaul University sophomore who attended high school on the west side of Chicago and saw many in his class drop out after countless school suspensions. “I could slowly see the determination to get an education fade from the faces of my peers,” said Ward, “because they were convinced that they no longer mattered.”
Officials blamed much of the harsh discipline on “zero tolerance” policies schools put in place in the late 1990s to stem the growing tide of violence. These blanket discipline policies, which attempt to keep order by imposing harsh, swift punishments, actually discourage students from attending school, opponents say, by imposing long suspensions and expulsions for offenses like using a cell phone or bringing scissors to school.
According to school discipline data from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, these harsh punishments disproportionately fall on students of color. For instance, in Illinois, 50 percent of students expelled in 2006 were African American, even though they made up only 10 percent of the total student population.
In that same year, nearly 68 percent of Georgia students suspended were African American, even though they made up only 40 percent of the student population. A study of Texas student discipline, published last year by the Council of State Governments, found that students who were suspended or expelled were three times more likely to be involved with the juvenile justice system in the next year.
To combat the problem, officials agree that schools need more options for dealing with students. “Whoever's making the discipline decision, whether it's a judge, principal or a teacher, they need more tools and options, (than just sending them out of school),” said Mike DeWine, attorney general of Ohio, who shared his state's success at managing juvenile justice at the local level. Deborah Delisle, assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education, recommended using school counselors or social workers to connect students to resources in the community.
“Sometimes (in a budget crunch)a guidance counselor or social worker is cut rather than the math teacher,” Delisle said. “But when we offer school climates that are inclusive to all students and provide support, we are telling children that we care enough about them to provide services.”
Durbin emphasized that the point of the hearing was, “not to blame teachers or administrators. The public schools are just overwhelmed,” he said. “Our challenge is figuring out how to balance keeping kids safe without over-disciplining them to failure.”