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School-to-Prison Pipeline Phenomenon

January 14, 2016

When a student is suspended or arrested for a charge on school grounds, they automatically are set back in life and much more likely to face incrimination in their future: this situation is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

The mentality places primary focus on incarceration rather than the education of students. The school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon reprimands students for even minor issues deemed as misconduct, such as inappropriate clothing or excessive absences, further perpetuating absentee rates and hindering the student from learning at their full potential. The student thus plays the role of the puppet, treated as if they are plaguing the school system, when in reality their education should act as the true tool for their future success.

These same students that suffer from the pipeline are more likely to face arrest in their future as a direct result of their experience at school.

It continues to be a reality for many students throughout the country but here at [Miami Dade County Public Schools (M-DCPS)] the School Board and Superintendent have unanimously decided that sending students home to be unsupervised and not receiving instruction does not work,” Vice-Chair of the M-DCPS Board Dr. Lawrence Feldman said.

Many school systems justify their response to these acts with a zero-tolerance policy, claiming they have zero tolerance for misconduct and will therefore reprimand all students they deem deserving, no matter how insignificant the violation. The students who fall prey to this phenomenon are primarily African-American.

“Zero tolerance had a useful place at one time, but without the ability to adjust the punishment for the violation, utilize multiple options rather than a cookie-cutter approach, or initiate needed services the overall policy, it is not effective and more troublesome than helpful,” Feldman said. “Having said that I am not in favor of totally eliminating a zero tolerance policy, but rather make it truly specific for violations against the health, well-being, and safety of students and employees at school e.g. zero tolerance for bringing a weapon to school.”

M-DCPS has responded to the issue by implementing two new behavioral management techniques. Students under suspension are sent to learning centers to continue learning the current curriculum at these centers while they are away, rather than receiving the busy work assignments students are traditionally given, and are granted services to modify negative behavior and/or remove obstacles that prevent effective learning. In addition, students who commit more serious violations now attend regional centers where they continue to learn, as opposed to suspension in which their opportunity to learn is eliminated.

“For incidents involving weapons, etc. and the most serious of violations, students are still sent to an alternative site and fulfill their expulsion there,” Feldman said.

In 2012, a statistical analysis found that youth in the Chicago school system that were arrested were 76 percent black, despite the ratio of the black student population being significantly smaller at a mere 42 percent. The vast majority of these school arrests were for misdemeanors, at 84 percent.

Florida is no exception to the prevalence of this issue. From 2011 to 2012, 13, 870 students in the M-DCPS system were arrested for school related activity.

Black high school honors student, Kiera Wilmot, was expelled and arrested on the charge of two felonies on the basis of causing a chemical explosion, after an assigned chemistry project bursted off a cap, and the experiment produced smoke on school property in 2014 in Polk County, Florida. Wilmot did not receive a reading of her Miranda Rights. Her charges were dropped as a result of public outrage; however, the felonies take an estimated five years to clear each, leaving her criminal record entirely plausible until the charges have cleared.

Black student, Brittany Overstreet, was accused of aggression when school administrators tried searching her backpack for mace, which she did not have in 2014 in Tampa Bay, Florida. She was slammed twice on the ground, leaving Overstreet with a fractured jaw and concussion. Overstreet was then suspended for 10 days and charged on the grounds of resistance, battery and disrupting school.

Hispanic students also heavily face the consequences of the pipeline, along with many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) students. Students with disabilities are affected too, facing suspension and/or arrest for behavior beyond their control.

“Sixty additional counselors or “Success Coaches” [in M-DCPS] have been added to the secondary school program to work with students that require a deeper and more aggressive type of behavior management program or the identification of social, medical, etc. needs,” Feldman said.

In Florida, the Power U Center for Social Change, a Miami based grassroots organization, is currently working towards better policy and legislation to amend the issues on a state level. The organization fought for reform of punishment policies of students for eight years before seeing progress in 2015 in Miami, starting at Brownsville Middle School and Cutler Bay Middle School. The campaign has since expanded and hopes to reform the school-to-prison pipeline in Florida entirely.

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