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To End the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Invest in Resources for Students

Harsh disciplinary measures and school-based arrests continue to disproportationately affect students of color, including preschoolers in Texas.

Steven Depolo/Flickr Creative Commons

Conversations about school safety in recent years have focused on the need to prevent and respond to school-based shootings. But the responses to these shootings often default to policies that make schools more hostile and less safe for many students. Specifically, the funding of police officers (“school safety” or “school resource” officers) in schools and harsher disciplinary measures disproportionately affect Black, Latinx, and Native students.

Writing in Slate last year, Jamelle Bouie looked at how President Trump’s proposal to arm teachers after the Parkland, Florida, shooting “would be an unmitigated disaster.” It would, Bouie wrote, “take the problems in our education system—especially around race and punishment—and turn them into a deadly crisis.”

For years now, students, parents, and advocates have been pointing to school discipline and policing policies that expose students to climbing rates of school suspensions and school-based arrests. These policies do not affect all young people equally. Between 1972 and 2010, the suspension rate doubled for Black students, going from 11.8 percent to 24.3 percent. For Latinx students, it climbed from 6.1 percent to 12 percent. This was true of even the most low-level disciplinary issues. Bouie pointed out that “one 2011 study found that 32 percent of black students were suspended for first-time offenses of cellphone use at school, compared with just 15 percent of white students.”

In 2014, the Obama administration issued “The Continuing Need To Rethink Discipline,” a report on harsh school disciplinary measures, their disproportionate use on students of color and disabled students, and their consequences for learning and involvement in the criminal legal system. The disparities in treatment begin early. The Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection from 2013-14 revealed that Black children were 3.6 times more likely to be suspended in preschool than white children. In the K-12 years, suspension rates for Black children were 3.8 times higher than those for white children. Students identified for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act were issued out-of-school suspensions at twice the rate of their peers. Despite constituting only 12 percent of students, they also made up the majority of students subjected to physical restraints and seclusion.

A new study out of Texas shows that many schools continue to suspend very young children with alarming frequency. The Houston Chronicle reported that “Texas schools issued more than 7,600 out-of-school suspensions to early elementary students—including 566 to preschoolers—despite a law virtually banning that punishment for children so young.”

A 2017 law banned suspensions for children in preschool through second grade for anything short of bringing a weapon, drugs, or alcohol or committing a “violent assault.” Despite that, there were still 4,489 suspensions across Texas for young children the following school year. And there are glaring disparities in the treatment of children in foster care, children in special education, Black children, and boys.

Nationwide, disparities in school discipline are mirrored by disparities in school-based arrest rates. Black students represented 16 percent of the nation’s public school population in 2011 and 2012 but 31 percent of those who experienced school-based arrests, according to figures from 2013 and 2014 from the U.S. Department of Education.

The federal government under President Trump has been clear that it sees harsh suspension policies as contributing to, rather than detracting from, safe schools. Last year, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rescinded the guidance issued by the Obama administration that was meant to reduce racial disparities in school discipline.

But there has been movement at the local level in some districts. In June, New York City, the largest school district in the country, reached an agreement to overhaul the role of police in city schools. The education news outlet Chalkbeat wrote of the changes to the original agreement: “The changes mark a major move away from the zero-tolerance policies that dominated the city’s approach to school discipline when the agreement was created. The document—which governs police involvement in school security and formally handed the police department authority over roughly 5,000 school safety agents—was supposed to be updated every four years, but has never been revised.”

The New York Times also reported on the agreement, noting that efforts to limit arrests and reduce the length of suspensions will also be accompanied by increased use of restorative justice practices and increased funding for social workers in schools.

Advocates who had been involved in the policymaking process have expressed optimism: “There’s still a lot of discretion baked in, but what you’re seeing is the school safety division give up their authority to arrest in every situation, and that’s big coming from the NYPD,” said Johanna Miller, an education policy expert at the New York Civil Liberties Union who participated on a mayoral task force to revise the agreement. “This [agreement] addresses some of the biggest contributors to arrests in schools and should reduce them dramatically.”

And youth advocates expressed cautious optimism as well. Mendy Mendez, a high school junior and member of The Brotherhood/Sister Sol, an organization that has advocated for greater investments in school counselors and other support staff for students, told Chalkbeat shortly after the agreement was announced that he was glad the city decided to “prioritize caring for the educational and mental well being of students” over policing behavior. “The presence of police in schools is totally unnecessary at the level that it’s at right now,” he said. “We want them to completely stop the hiring of school safety agents and increase the amount of support staff so there’s a better balance in schools.”

There is, of course, a great deal more to be done. In April, the NYCLU drew attention to the NYPD’s continuing failure to report on the use of metal detectors in schools. Over 90,000 students pass through metal detectors on their way into city schools each morning and at least 90 percent of them are Black and Latinx. The use of metal detectors varies widely among the boroughs, at its highest in the Bronx and its lowest in Staten Island. Despite requirements since 2016 that the NYPD collect information on the use of metal detectors and share it with the City Council, it has not done so. In April, the City Council responded to a Freedom of Information Law request from the NYCLU saying it did not have the requested data.