School To Prison Pipeline

by Randall Hill

The "school-to-prison pipeline" describes a widespread pattern in the United States of pushing students, especially those who are already at a disadvantage, out of school and into the American criminal justice system. The resulting miseducation and mass incarceration create a vicious cycle for individuals, families and communities.

Zero-tolerance disciplinary policies are often the first step in a child’s journey through the pipeline. Such policies impose severe discipline on students. In 2011, a study by the National Education Policy Center found that zero-tolerance policies across the nation were increasing suspension rates, with students being accused of offenses such as attendance violations, dress code violations, cell phone use, and other minor offenses.

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They found that zero-tolerance policies put children, particularly Black and Latino children, on a path of truancy and likely incarceration. Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than White students and account for 70% of arrests while attending school.

Teachers and administrators are treating young students like criminals, and are responding to typical student behavior that has no bearing on safety. The resulting excessive discipline defies common sense. Schools have redefined developmentally appropriate behaviors as crimes. Pushing and shoving in the school yard is now a battery, and talking back is now disorderly conduct.

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My Personal Experience with the Pipeline

I have two sons, as I write this, one is currently in college the other in high school. My sons are great guys. I have often met people who have  described my sons as nice, intelligent, respectable young men. My sons are no saints, like all kids, they had their moments, but the good always greatly outweighed the bad. I am proud of my sons and I am confident they will prove to be good men.

The only reason I mentioned about my sons generally being good kids was to demonstrate that even good kid can get caught up in the school to prison pipeline.

My oldest has always been a very social person. Ever since he was a toddler, he attended church with his grandmother, until her passing. He is now in minister training in addition to being in college. His kindergarten teacher tried to convince me he was hyper active and wanted me to consider having his doctor put him on Ritalin. I explained that there was no way I was going to put my six year old child on drugs because she was having problems controlling her class. I did, however, take disciplinary steps to make sure my child's behavior improved, which it did.

My youngest son never had any problems in school until his freshman year in high school. The school has a majority black student population but the majority of teachers are white and was headed by a white principal. He is now in his junior year and has only had about 3 or 4 black teachers during his high school career; only one of his eight teachers this year is black.

As a former teacher points out in a recent article, most White teachers mean well and have no intention of being racist; but may still unintentionally exhibit racist behaviors.

Horseplay vs Fighting

During the second semester of my youngest son's freshman year he was given a one day out of school and a two day in school suspension for horseplay. It was explained, that because the situation could have escalated, horseplay was being treated as fighting. I was told my son's penalty was actually lower than normal. I thought the combined three day suspension was excessive, especially for a first time minor violation and I requested a "reconsideration of suspension”

Fighting normally involves people trying to physically harm one another, often out of anger; horseplay is energetic playful  activity which usually does not involve anger or attempted physical harm. Although, horseplay is inappropriate school behavior, it should not be treated or penalized as a fight.

The St. Louis City Public School District appears to have adopted a no tolerance policy regarding horseplay. If parents and students had adopted a no tolerance policy towards the district when it struggled with and then lost accreditation, I could understand. However, the district, school and individual teachers were provided a chance to improve. Parents and students exercised a choice to keep students in the district. To remove students from classes in a district already
struggling, for a first time minor offense, did not seem prudent. It was unfair to assess a serious penalty for a minor violation because of what might have happened. Fighting is obviously more serious than horseplay.

Assessing penalties in this manner serves no purpose but to label good kids as persistent troublemakers and to trap students in a cycle of punishment.

Excessive discipline / suspension

Shortly after the first incident, my son had a second incident. He was suspended for a total of 13 days ( 3 days out of school and 10 days in schooI). I requested a copy of the official incident report, the names of any witnesses to the incident. I also requested a hearing as authorized by St. Louis Public School (SLPS) policy, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and RSMO 160, to protect my son's constitutionally guaranteed due process rights before his suspension was finalized.

I inquired whether a formal form was required, and if so, to immediately provide me with any required forms. I also requested all written communication from me concerning the incident included in my son’s student file. Additionally, I requested that my son be allowed to attend classes until final disposition of the hearings regarding the incident.

When your child gets into trouble at school, he or she most likely does not have the maturity, knowledge, communication skills or other skills to effective or competently state their case and will need someone to advocate for them.

I had to ask my son a number of questions to get a full picture of what had actually happened. I then wrote a appeal, which I share below in case it is helpful to someone else. The names have been removed to protect privacy.

Suspension Appeal Statement on behalf of My Son

I formally request reconsideration of an unusually harsh suspension of thirteen days for an event that occurred on March 13, 2014 during lunch break at my son's school which caused no disruption to any class room, cafeteria or any other area inside the school

Additionally, I request that the February 27th Code of Conduct Referral Form be corrected and the Type II Fighting charge removed.

Statement of Facts

Approximately, 2:05 pm on February 27th, students in Ms. A’s class were putting away items and preparing to go home. While the teacher was in the hallway on a phone call, my son and student X became engaged in horseplay. My son and student X stopped before they realized Ms. A had returned to the room. Both students went back to their seats and gathered their book bags after noticing the teacher’s return. I had original assumed Ms. A told them to stop when she entered the class, but my son has since informed me that they didn’t even notice her when she reentered the class room. Another teacher was standing in doorway talking to Ms. A, seconds later at 2:07 pm, the bell rang and the class began exiting. When My son entered the hallway, Ms. R and a school security officer had already detained student X and then my son was also detained.

Based upon my understanding of the events, I prepared a “Request to Reconsider Suspension” in the hopes that a warning or detention would be given instead of suspension. Student X’s and my son’s playful behavior was inappropriate; however, considering the time of day, this event did not interfere with classroom instruction and does not rise to the level requiring suspension. A write up, detention or perhaps a one day in house suspension would have been a more appropriate reaction for a first time offense of this nature.

I have ingrained in my son since preschool, the concept how important it is to be honest with me and the consequences of broken trust at a crucial moment. My son has never given me any reason to doubt his honesty and quite frankly has surprised me at times with his candor. When my son told me his version of events, logically it made sense, I believe him.

My son strongly disagrees with the February 27th Code of Conduct Referral Form and that it inaccurately describes the event. It would be simple to poll the students in Ms. A’s class that witnessed the events to get a more accurate depiction. I can’t understand why my son would not follow the instructions of his teacher as outlined on the referral form, but respond to the mere presence of an unknown teacher.

My son Version of March 13th Event

My son left the school cafeteria approximately ten minutes into second lunch and was walking to Mr. E’s classroom. As my son walked down the hallway, another student (student “B”) was walking in the other direction and said, “what’s up, where you about to go”, and My son replied, “going to Mr. E”. Student B then playfully pushed my son’s head and my son told student B, “chill out”, and then student B punched my son in the chest. Two other students (student C and student D), witnessed the punch and student D said, “you gonna let him hit you like that” and my son replied, “man I’m not even trippin”. Student B then turned around and approached my son. My son thought this was playful, but wasn’t quite sure, so as a precaution my son grabbed student B which is where the video record from student C’s cell phone begins and the students all entered the stairwell.

Mr. S entered the stairwell after all activity had ceased and noticed student C using his cell phone and confiscated it. My son then went to Mr. E’s classroom. Student C, who later saw my son in Mr. E’s classroom, informed my son that Mr. W was looking for him, the bell rang and my son went to his ROTC class. Mr. W and Ms. R came to the ROTC classroom and Mr. W asked my son to gather his belongings and they all proceeded to Mr. W’s office.

Ms. R asked my son his version of what happened and showed him the cell phone footage. Ms. R then sent for student B and when he arrived, she asked him to write down his version of what happened. While student B was still writing his version, Ms. R sent for student C. When student C arrived, Ms. R asked him to write down his description of what happened. Student C also provided an oral explanation which my son says supports his version.

In Support of Appeal

The video clearly shows that student B has a smile on his face and at one point asks to stop to secure personal belongings. At that point activity on the video stops and begins again once student B has secured his item. The video footage shows two freshmen boys engaged in adolescent horseplay and having a friendly boxing match, this was not a fight.

There have been recent studies showing that teen’s brains are immature, but just about every adult already knows that. I was surprised and embarrassed that my son not only had a second incident, but that it was so soon after the initial one. My 14 year old son, recently did some immature things at school by engaging in horse play near the end of school on February 27th and boxing during lunch time on March 13th. However, 14 year old kids, sometimes do stupid things, but should they face a 13 day suspension or removal from school from minor incidents?

Understandably, actions have consequences, but the consequence here seems extremely severe and penalizes rather than adjust behavior. Even within the criminal justice system, three strike laws usually only apply to felonies and not minor infractions or misdemeanors.  Common sense dictates that more serious actions should have more serious consequences. Although I agree that the two incidents above are inappropriate behaviors, the consequences are unfair, unbalanced and excessive for the level of the offense.

On February 27th, the more appropriate reaction would have been a written warning or detention and an in house or one day suspension would have been a more appropriate response to the second offense.

At the beginning of the school year, my wife raised some concerns about inappropriate contact between my son and a SLPS employee. Although I did not share her concerns, I was concerned that my son might be targeted later with some form of retaliation. The reaction that these two incidents have generated has done little to ease those fears. However, the alternative explanation that schools are treating students more like criminals than children is equally alarming.

There is nothing in my son’s background that suggests that a thirteen day suspension is appropriate. With spring break beginning, to have my son miss two days of school and then another two weeks of classroom instruction serves no purpose. In my initial response to my son’s first suspension, I cited an article, “The school-to-prison pipeline: How ‘horseplay’ puts kids in jail”. Just as no individual raindrop ever considers itself responsible for the flood, no individual administrator ever see their actions as contributing to the pipeline. My son has people to protect him, but what happens to the kids thrown under the bus with no one to effectively advocate for them?

My son has already missed one day of school and won’t return to classes until April 9th. It is my hope that reasonable minds prevail and a decision will be made to allow My son to return to school on March 24th.

After Spring Break my son did go to in house suspension for a few days, but then was allowed to return to class. My son hasn't had any other issues since.

Almost a year later, during my son's sophomore year,  a report publish by UCLA reported Missouri elementary schools have highest rate of suspending black children in the country. The findings also revealed Missouri has the greatest disparity between how often black and white students get out-of-school suspension for infractions.

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