Prison Pipeline Hits Black Students Harder, Criminalizes School Discipline

Prison Pipeline Hits Black Students Harder, Criminalizes School Discipline


At a packed hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday, Judith Browne Dianis presented solutions for the growing problem of the school-to-prison pipeline before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. The issue of criminalizing student behavior is disproportionately affecting Black male students.

Dianis co-directs the Advancement Project, a multiracial civil rights organization Dianis says, “exists to fulfill America’s promise of a caring, inclusive, and just democracy, rooted in the great human rights struggles for equality and justice.”  Minority students are increasingly bearing the brunt of harsh disciplinary practices in school.  That discipline often includes their initial contact with the criminal justice system.

“Nationally, Black students are three times more likely to be suspended and four times more likely to be expelled than their White peers. Students with disabilities are suspended at twice the rate as students without disabilities. LGBTQ youth are more likely to be disciplined and arrested than peers,” Dianis stated.

Her points interwove culture, race and justice while also addressing practicality. She advocated common sense solutions instead of criminalizing young people for minor and psychologically normal reactions in school.

Dianis spoke of students who were expelled and arrested for infractions including tardiness or violating the dress code.

The attorney also pointed out that many schools and school systems do not treat young people with different worldviews, capacities and experiences the same when the students do the same things.

“We are facing a discipline crisis, one that is pushing students of color out of school, by either kicking them out of school or causing them to drop out, and one that is disproportionately impacting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBTQ) students and students with disabilities,” she said.

She cited recent data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). More than three million students are suspended and upwards of 100,000 students are expelled annually. The figure has almost doubled in thirty years.

Using extreme tactics for commonplace behavior is not effective, she said.

“We know that exclusionary discipline does not work. It has not made our schools safer; it has not improved the quality of schools; and it is a significant contributor to the dropout crisis and student achievement gap.”

Instead of helping, some students reported feeling unduly criminalized, Dianis shared.

“As students in Philadelphia explained, ‘It creates a hostile environment. It makes it seem as though they expect us to be negative. I feel violated. I shouldn’t have to go through a metal detector . . . and upon entering [a particular school for the first time] I had to take off my shoes and they searched me like I was a real criminal. . . [after that] I was making up every excuse not to go to school.’”

While the co-director did not blame teachers for changing academic paradigms, she said that many are not given the support and training that they need to appropriately address classroom concerns. Many are fearful as today’s standardized tests leave students and teachers vulnerable based on performance.

Black and Latino student suspensions increased between 2003 and 2007, while white student suspensions decreased. Researchers did not indicate that students of color act out more. They said that the increases reflected overt and covert biases in the school system.

These similarities cause many to believe that some schools prep black and brown students for imprisonment.

“We see the same patterns in schools that we see in criminal justice. Blacks are imprisoned at higher rates and given more severe sentences than Whites for the same offenses.”

While much of her presentation showed the work that needs to be done across the nation, some cities appeared to be on the right track. Dianis highlighted Denver and Baltimore.

Denver’s school discipline policy now requires the elimination of racial disparities and requires the building of cultural competence. As a result, out of school suspensions and referrals to law enforcement dropped.

In Baltimore similar reforms took place. Suspensions decreased and graduation rates increased.

More cities could adopt similar policies if they truly desire to help students, especially since many students who act out and/or are sought out need help.

“Every dollar that goes into police, metal detectors, and surveillance cameras is a dollar that could have been used for teachers, guidance counselors, school psychologists, and program supports for young people,” Dianis said.