The School To Prison Pipeline

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The school-to-prison pipeline is a widespread pattern across the United States that pushes students, particularly disadvantaged students, out of schools and into the criminal justice system.

This is largely due to public institutions not properly addressing  the needs of individual students who may need extra help educationally and socially. This is often because of financial and staffing shortages.

This results in students being poorly educated, dropping out or getting kicked out of school, often resulting in arrests that develop into a cycle of continued arrests and crime which plaque not only that individual, but their community and ultimately, our society as a whole.

Hundreds Of Thousands Of Students Arrested At School Yearly

Each year across the nation, thousands of students are handcuffed in front of their classmates and taken to jail for behavioral problems that used to just result in a student being sent to the principal’s office or suspended.

A large majority of the students being arrested aren’t committing criminal acts, but displaying bad behavior. They are being arrested for misdemeanors such as “disorderly conduct”, which includes infractions such as refusing to give up their cellphone in schools with no cellphone policies and classroom disruptions. A relatively small percentage are arrests for weapons charges.

I personally have seen students arrested who had been suspended or put into an alternative school program, but came back to school either thinking their suspension was up or without truly understanding the terms and conditions of their suspension. Granted, when asked to leave campus these kids were defiant and thus arrested for trespassing, and while some were given warnings to leave campus, others weren’t given a warning at all and were simply arrested in front of their classmates.

There are definitely times and instances when students need to be arrested and detained for their own safety and/or the safety of others, but I think far too often, students are needlessly being arrested, taken down to the juvenile detention center and exposed to the criminal justice system.

An arrest record can stay with these students for the rest of their lives, even when the charges are dropped. When applying for jobs or to colleges and asked, “Have you ever been arrested”, they will will have to check “yes”.

Last week I watched as a group of girls had a verbal altercation on campus, that looked like it may erupt into something physical. As far as I could see, no one was physically being assaulted, but one of the school resource officers responding to the disruption, grabbed a girl, threw her to the ground and placed handcuffs on her. Despite everyone screaming that she wasn’t doing anything wrong, she was still detained. I believe she was eventually released to the custody of her parents and suspended, but  it was obvious by the look on her face and everyone around her, that it was a traumatizing experience.

Not only is being arrested traumatizing and embarrassing, it interrupts a students educational process and can create distrust in the school system and the law. I think far too often, arrests are made in cases such as a petty fight, minor vandalism, trespassing and minor theft, things that used to send a kid home for ten days, but now may get them arrested. I’ve even seen students tazed by officers during school fights, when they used to be broken up by teachers.

Granted, often students who get arrested have ignored warnings and instructions given by the police officer.

I wouldn’t dare want to interfere with law enforcement’s ability to do their job, especially in light of  the Sandy Hook shootings, but when police officers are on campus, the number of student arrests for minor infractions increases, many of which seem petty and unproductive.

For example, here in Florida a teen was arrested for trespassing because during her suspension she returned to school to take her final exams, and students involved in fights are often charged with battery against each other.

Disabled and Black Students Are Disproportionately Arrested

Students with various disabilities and black students are arrested more compared to their percentage of the student population. Even in schools for students with severe emotional problems, students are getting arrested for things like hitting, kicking and throwing objects, behavior that seems more related to their disabilities than to criminal acts.

While black students are more likely to be arrested than white students, it’s not because black students are misbehaving more, but historically and presently they seem to be punished more severely for less serious infractions, according to a study done by The Equity Project at Indiana University. Black males tend to be arrested more for “disorderly conduct” while white males are more likely to be arrested for drug charges. Black students are also more likely to have their cases dismissed than white students.

We can’t criminalize children for being and acting like children. Most of the students who get arrested already have had discipline or absenteeism problems before the arrest and could have benefited from an in school psychologically based program, such as the one I work for. It helps students with anger, academic, emotional, substance and behavior problems, and we even advocate for them during times when they are on the verge of getting arrested or expelled.

Unfortunately, many schools don’t have this type of program, nor the funds and staff to conduct the social services needed.

Acting Out in School as a Way of Hiding a Learning Disability

There are variety of reasons kids act out in school, but they all usually act out to either hide something or as a way of expressing something they don’t know how to express in a more appropriate manner.

Earlier this week I sat in on an executive board meeting with various members of the Department of Juvenile Justice in the state of Florida and was reminded of Dexter Manley’s incredible story. 

Dexter Manley was an American professional football player who liked to give back to his inner-city community. Often he would go to various schools and speak to children about the importance of an education. Well one day after he had gotten through giving an inspiring speech to a group of elementary school kids, he was asked to read to them from an elementary level book. Dexter tried to get out of the situation, but he was cornered and eventually broke down crying. He had been hiding a secret that he was terrified would be exposed. He couldn’t read. Here was a man who had not only graduated from high school, but had also went to college and yet wasn’t able to read beyond a second grade reading level.

In elementary school Dexter realized in the second grade he had learning issues (poor auditory memory) and was often teased by other students. In return he started acting out in class, becoming a “troubled student” and even once pushed one of his teachers against the wall. He was passed on from class to class and grade to grade until he eventually graduated high school with only a second grade reading level. He had become a master at hiding his learning disability so well that he made it through college and much of his adult life without even his children and wife knowing he could barely read or write, but it all started in elementary school where he learned that acting out in class got him out of having to reveal that he was having trouble reading, writing or understanding material his peers were grasping. 

That got me to thinking about the many “troubled” teens I work with and I noticed before that most of them also had failing grades and very poor reading and writing skills, but I had been under the impression that it was mostly due to their lack of participation in class, lack of concentration, attention and motivation. It wasn’t until recently that I started realizing that many of them act out to hide the fact that they are suffering from one learning disability or the other. Now when I am referred a kid by a teacher or guidance counselor for “behavior issues” I also check their academics and their grades usually are very poor. Eventually I usually learn that their reading and writing skills are also extremely poor and I say “eventually” because it is usually hard to get them to write or read anything, they are usually master manipulators and will either change the subject, get angry or deviant. One kid in particular walked around with a stack of books, about five books checked out from the library in her arms at all times. I always thought she was an avid reader, but one day when I called her in my office and she came with her books, I asked her about each book and realized she hadn’t read any of them. When I tried to coach her into reading one to me, she struggled through a line or two and then became very angry and deviant. She stopped reading. She could barely read and she was a 17 year old high school junior.

Although I believe the practice of just passing troubled kids through school to get rid of them is less common today in the age of standardized testing, I am all too aware of many recent and not so recent high school graduates who read and write on elementary grade levels and seem to have slipped through the cracks of our educational system. Often times teachers send me kids they have kicked out of their class for “acting out”, and these kids are usually failing that class and have learned very quickly that if they act out, they will either get left alone or removed from the situation they don’t want to be in anyway. Up until recently, the real situation wasn’t getting dealt with as I had ignored the possible learning issues going on and went straight to trying to solve the cognitive and behavioral problems as I’ve been trained to do. 

Without help, these kids who manage to skate through high school will find that functioning in the real world is much harder. Many of the manipulation, distracting and defense mechanisms that worked in high school will not work in society and may actually get them hurt, arrested or worse. Unlike Dexter Manley who was a star football player and had the athletic talent and financial resources to hide his issues (at least for awhile), most of these young people will be unable to get or keep jobs and will most likely turn to drugs, alcohol, and criminal activities as ways of trying to cope. Ignoring the problem now will only cost everyone more later when these young people are carjacking us, or we are using our tax payers money to feed them in jail.  

If you have or are a parent of a child with a learning disability I would love to hear from you.

If you are a parent and have a child that is acting out and also struggling in school, it would be a good idea to have him or her tested for a learning disability. I think often learning disabilities go undiagnosed because parents are unwilling to have their kids tested. No one wants to have a child with a learning disability, but having that disability identified and attended to will allow that child to learn how to adjust and succeed. Not giving your child that opportunity out of fear of labeling could be detrimental to his/her future.

To read more about Dexter Manley you can click on this link http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1077/is_n12_v44/ai_8010811/?tag=content;col1