Toward a more perfect union: Addressing the school-to-prison pipeline

Early Childhood
Juvenile Justice
Racial Equity

MONUMENTLast week, the U.S. departments of education and justice hosted superintendents, principals, teachers, and students from over 40 districts for a day-long convening at the White House on school discipline. The conference, called “Rethink Discipline,” is one of many initiatives taken by the Obama Administration to address a phenomenon that thrusts children out of schools and into the criminal justice system. This phenomenon, known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” is the product of an overreliance on zero-tolerance policies that punish minor offenses with suspensions, expulsions, and arrests. Alarmingly, zero-tolerance policies are disproportionately applied to African-American students. While Black children represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment, they comprise half of preschoolers receiving suspension. Furthermore, while Black students compromise 16 percent of public school enrollment, they make up 32-42 percent of students suspended or expelled, and 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement. These staggering statistics have sparked a sense of urgency in the Obama Administration’s mission to create educational and racial equity in the nation.

The summit provided school leaders from around the country with a forum to share how they combat the school-to-prison pipeline in their districts. In addition, national experts provided insights into the causes of this phenomenon and offered policy recommendations to reduce suspensions, expulsions, and other harsh punishments. One of the highlights of the convening was a keynote presentation by Dr. Phillip Goff, a researcher from Stanford University. In his engaging and lively presentation entitled “Behavioral Science Approaches to Addressing Discrimination in Schools,” Dr. Goff set out to answer a question lingering in the minds of audience members: why are Black children disproportionately disciplined in schools? Using research from the field and humorous anecdotes, Dr. Goff explained how our brains fall into a “fast trap” that often leads to the automatic, stereotyping of people. It is human nature for our brains to use shortcuts, he explained, because it allows us to make decisions quickly and efficiently. When faced with a decision or problem, our brains use past experiences to quickly inform our choices. Sometimes this can be helpful. For example, a person may associate raw chicken with sickness and therefore not eat raw chicken. But fast traps can just as easily lead to bias when we subconsciously associate Latinos with “illegal” and Black people with “criminal,” for example.

Dr. Goff provided several examples of clinical research that explained how fast traps impact school discipline. One of the studies he discussed, the Two Strike Study, is a powerful representation of how subconscious bias leads to real world problems. In the study, 250 experienced teachers were read about minor infractions, such as writing on the wall or swearing at people. Half of the students who committed the infractions were Black, and half were White. After the teacher reviewed the sample scenario, they were asked to rate the severity of the behavior, recommend punishment, and guess how likely the student is to be a troublemaker. There were no racial disparities in how teachers evaluated first time offenders. However, when presented with a second infraction by the same student, implicit racial disparities emerged in the reactions of the teachers. Teachers were more likely to label students as habitual “trouble makers” when the repeat offender was a student of color. Because the teachers subconsciously associated students of color with criminals, they were also more likely to describe the repeat minor offense as “disturbing’ and recommend severe punishments. Their implicit biases reflected stereotypical patterns, resulting in unequal treatment of students of color.

While the task is daunting, there are several evidence-based methods that can alleviate this type of bias and other causes of the school-to-prison pipeline. Restorative justice, which focuses on healing, moral learning, collaboration, and respectful dialogue to make amends between the offender and the victim, is one such practice. Restorative justice seeks to restore communities by identifying the specific harm that occurred and creating meaningful, mutually agreed upon pathways to heal said harm. The open and honest nature of restorative justice models allows for students and adults to engage in dialogue that can reveal misunderstandings and biases that may not have otherwise been divulged. In this way, restorative justice can combat the implicit bias in decision-making by lifting subconscious assumptions to the awareness of school leaders. School administrators have the opportunity to reflect on their biased decision-making and reexamine the normative baselines they used to evaluate behavior. Additionally, the focus on healing and meaningful collaboration creates spaces for student voices that may have otherwise been silenced. When school administrators listen to these stories, it allows them to understand the root behavior behind the bad behavior and construct more meaningful ways to rehabilitate the student.

Restorative justice models have been implemented in schools across the country with impressive results. In fact, the White House invited Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the second largest school district in the nation, to the convening because of its successful use of restorative justice techniques. LAUSD was the first school district in the country to ban suspensions for “willful defiance,” a term to describe minor offenses like swearing. Instead, students partake in conflict resolution to address the harm that was done. The school district provides schools with resources on a variety of conflict resolution methods, ranging from facilitated dialogues with groups of students to lesson plans. By shifting from harsh discipline to restorative justice practices, the LAUSD has reduced the number of days lost to suspensions and cut office discipline referrals. Slowly but surely, LAUSD is ending the school to prison pipeline in their locality.

Solving the school-to-prison pipeline will not be easy. It demands the attention and commitment of everyone dedicated to the proposition that every child, no matter the color of their skin, is created equal and deserves a fair opportunity to succeed. By implementing evidence-based models, such as restorative justice, our nation can take meaningful steps to advance racial equity in education that began so long ago. In doing so, we can achieve a more perfect union. It is only proper that we do so.

Toward a more perfect union: Addressing the school-to-prison pipeline – @First_Focus @Lexie_Gruber #RethinkDiscipline
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