The School to Prison Pipeline
“You never want to punish a child by depriving them of an education…that to me is a society committing suicide,” said Bernardine Dohrn of Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center, one of six panelists gathered to address why some youth are more likely than others to end up in prison as a result of infractions committed at school. Dohrn’s provocative comment framed the dilemma that faces educators and the courts as they grapple with the disproportionate impact of zero tolerance school polices.
A roundtable dialogue on the “Human Rights and the School to Prison Pipeline” sought to recast the issue of school discipline from one of student behavior to a human rights issue. The panel was a Section of Litigation’s Children’s Rights Litigation Committee program in October at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, and was co-sponsored by the Dignity in Schools Campaign.
Dohrn explained that low-income and minority students are more likely to incur school discipline than their more fortunate, wealthier or white counterparts. “We know from research that breaking the law has nothing to do with poverty or race, but getting caught has everything to do with poverty and race,” she said.
Moreover, Judge Brian Huff, chief presiding judge of the juvenile court in Birmingham, Ala., shared the additional concern that many minority students have difficulty getting back on track after disciplinary actions.
He indicated that it is not uncommon for a minority child returning to school after a suspension to be arrested for trespassing if a parent does not re-enroll the child. Sometimes these are parents “with substance abuse or working two and three jobs,” and thus unable to complete the necessary steps for re-enrollment, further penalizing the student trying to obtain an education.
In discussing solutions, Marcella Diana of the National Education Association advocated creating “schools within schools” to reduce the size of student populations to more manageable numbers. She also talked about a dropout prevention project housed in the Civil Rights Department of NEA.
In addition to Dohrn, Diana and Huff, the session included Chandra Bhatnager, American Civil Liberties Union; Dora Olivo, a member of the Texas House of Representatives; and Adilka Pimental, a youth organizer for Make the Road New York. Michael Kaufman, professor and associate dean for academic affairs at Loyola University School of Law, moderated the session.