Virginia sends more schoolchildren to the criminal legal system than any other state in the nation, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We can change our policies and practices to support (rather than punish and incarcerate) youth who “act out”…youth who may be struggling. In this piece, we take a look at four promising practices to shut down the “pipeline”.
The term “trauma-to-prison pipeline” (a.k.a. “school-to-prison pipeline“) is used to describe the increasing pattern of contacts between students and the juvenile and adult criminal justice system as a result of practices implemented by educational institutions. This system leaves students as young as the age of four susceptible to suspension, detention, and other punishments that could lead to a life of incarceration and captivity.
Destiny, then an eighth grader at Lyons Community School in Brooklyn, New York, was fortunate enough to be attending a school that saw a need for a change. When she got into an altercation with another student that resulted in her throwing her teacher’s jacket out of the classroom window, Destiny would likely have faced detention or suspension—had she been enrolled in a typical middle school. Destiny’s school handled the situation differently – through restorative justice.
This gave Destiny the opportunity to stand before a “justice panel” comprised of four of her peers who took the time to listen to her story and then determine how best to address the harm done. Destiny was able to reflect on her actions, apologize to her victims, and improve her community without instantly being criminalized because of one incident. Restorative justice has helped Lyons Community School reduce their suspension rate by more than 20%. Check out these promising ways to reduce or eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline.
- 1: Practice Restorative Justice
Not only is restorative justice a way of holding students accountable for what they have done, but it also opens the door for positive reinforcement. Students like Destiny have the opportunity for reconciliation with those they may have harmed through their actions. Many schools have dramatically reduced their number of suspensions by using restorative justice tools to handle nonviolent offenses as it is a better opportunity to get to the root of the initial problem and change the behavior.
- 2: Enforce Less Police Punishment
The presence of School Resource Officers (SROs) has greatly increased in recent years. Many students make their first contact with the criminal legal system because of interactions with SROs and typically because of nonviolent offenses. Less involvement from SROs in the discipline of students for nonviolent offenses has the possibility of lowering the chances of troubled students falling into a cycle of suspension and incarceration. If police are in schools, reducing the pipeline requires limiting the role of police to public safety, rather than enforcing school discipline.
- 3: Improve Staff-to-Student Ratio
Suspension and incarceration are correlated; being removed from school increases a student’s chances of being incarcerated – and ultimately dropping out of school altogether. Virginia averages 13.2 students per teacher in elementary and secondary schools (the overall U.S. average is 15.5-to-1). This isn’t a bad starting point, but because of how crucial school counselors can be in a student’s life, improving the counselor-to-student ratio should also be a priority. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250-to-1, however during the 2013-14 school year, Virginia schools averaged 381-to-1.
- 4: Place Less Emphasis on Standardized Tests
When students’ primary measurement of success is determined by test scores, they may be likely to become disengaged from their education. Disengagement often leads to lower grades, disruptive behavior, and often dropping out. Preparing students to pass a test instead of preparing them to succeed in life could ultimately be preparing students for the school-to-prison pipeline.
What effect do you think these changes could have on incarceration rates? What other ways do you think the school-to-prison pipeline can be reversed? Let us know in the comments!
Ki’ara Montgomery is a Senior at Virginia Commonwealth University with plans to graduate in May 2017. She is obtaining a bachelor’s degree in public relations, and minors in business and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. While in school, she has had opportunities with VCU AmeriCorps, Culture4MyKids, VCU School of Education, and the Richmond Raiders. She is currently interning with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance with a focus in development, policy, and communications.
This article is part of the Action Alliance’s blog series on Virginia’s Trauma-to-Prison-Pipeline.
The Trauma-to-Prison-Pipeline (aka “School-to-Prison-Pipeline”) fails young people who are experiencing high levels of toxic stress and/or trauma by responding in overly punitive ways to youth who exhibit normal reactions to trauma and toxic stress.
Youth of color and youth with disabilities are particularly targeted for disproportionately high levels of heavy-handed, punitive responses to vague and subjective infractions in school, such as “defiance of authority”, or “classroom disruption”. Viewed from a trauma-informed lens, these same behaviors may signal youth who are suffering and struggling with ongoing effects of trauma.
The Action Alliance believes that everyone deserves racially equitable responses that are compassionate and trauma-informed, and which build individual and community assets.
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