Saturday, January 22, 2005

Undoing the School-to-Prison Pipeline Is Right and Saves Tax Money

by State Rep. Dora Olivo,

Texas House of Representatives


James C. Harrington,

Director, Texas Civil Rights Project

Texas schools face a host of crises, not the least of which is discipline. School discipline affects the future of Texas, and especially the state’s minority and disability communities. The Legislature and local school boards must come to grips with this issue.

Educators and political leaders are increasingly concerned about the "school-to-prison pipeline" that happens when kids with discipline problems are moved out of the regular school setting, and not given effective educational support. Far too often, these students are "warehoused," sent to inferior disciplinary alternative education programs (DAEP) and juvenile justice alternative education programs (JJAEP) that, in reality, encourage them to drop out, or be expelled. These kids are the most likely to end up in prison.

In 2003, The Civil Rights Project at Harvard and Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice summarized the national data, which reflect Texas’:

Since the early 1990’s, many schools have replaced graduated sanctions with "zero tolerance." This has nearly doubled students suspended annually since 1974 (from 1.7 million to 3.1 million, nationally), increased police presence in schools, and led to new laws, referring children to police for school code violations.

Minority students are heavily over-represented among those most harshly sanctioned. In 2000, African Americans comprised 17% of students nationally, but 34% of those suspended; blacks were 2.6 times as likely to be suspended as white students. Among students with disabilities, African Americans are three times as likely to be suspended, and four times as likely to be educated in correctional facilities, as whites.

In patterns startlingly similar to discipline data, in 1998, black and Latino youth represented 1/3 of the country’s adolescent population, but 2/3 of youths confined to correctional placements. Four out of five new juveniles detained were minority youths. Black youths with no prior criminal record are six times, and Latino youths three times, more likely to be incarcerated than whites for the same offense.

Criminal justice data reflect the school-to-prison-pipeline. Approximately 68% of state inmates in 1997 had not completed high school. Seventy-five percent of youths under age 18 in prison have not completed 10th grade. Within the juvenile justice population, 70% have learning disabilities, and 33% read below 4th grade level.

The "single largest predictor" of subsequent arrest among adolescent females is having been suspended, expelled, or held back during the middle school years; 70% of women state prisoners have not completed high school.

Discipline in schools is very important, to be sure. But discipline must be creative and effective -- effective, in that it teaches students to control their behavior, while continuing to educate them. Discipline cannot become a vehicle by which poor, minority, and disabled students are driven from school, but must be a tool to support teachers and help the educational process.

Part of the problem is how education money is spent. It takes good, early intervention to change bad behavior and deal with "acting out" by students, and educate them at the same time. Not investing money up front leads to a much greater drain on taxpayers when these children enter the criminal justice system.

Nor is it fair to lay all the blame on local districts for the "school-to-prison pipeline." In 1995, the Legislature established significantly lower standards for DAEPs. Then, in 2003, the Legislature cut funding for disciplinary alternative education from $18 million to $5 million. Both steps have to be reversed, and even more done so that teachers and administrators have the tools they need to educate.

Better use of funds and early intervention would help schools establish more effective, education alternatives. There are good models: Garza High School in Austin and the Lamar Consolidated School District are but two.

It is in everyone’s interest for today’s students to become as educated as possible, to graduate, and be productive. Sometimes, we can be short-sighted in focusing on immediate problems, and not seeing the long-range consequences of our short-term solutions.

There will be a summit at the State Capitol Legislative Conference Center on January 28 on these issues. It’s important not just to understand the situation better, but to organize local communities and political leaders to make a greater commitment to this problem. We all pay the price in the long run, if we delay. It may not be popular, but it is wise and prudent.

This issue unites all political stripes, from conservatives to liberal. It’s better to invest financial support in schools early on, rather than spending $25,000/year to keep someone in prison. It’s a matter of justice and fairness – to both students and taxpayers.

For more information on the "Texas Summit: Laying the Groundwork: Creating a Positive School Environment for Student Success," January 28, 2005, 9:00am-3:00pm, please contact or by calling 512.463.0494

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