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Social Justice: Examining the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

The nation has erupted in protests over the untimely death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. This incident has, again, highlighted the call for police reform and criminal justice reform, a topic that has become commonplace within the American socio-political discourse.

Predating the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, our nation’s history and data have continuously demonstrated that present within the US are inherent systemic racial inequities that disproportionately and negatively impact Black, Latinx, and Native American populations as well as those communities that are low-income. These inequities are prevalent not only in the US criminal justice system but also within the nation’s education system. The ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ is an example of one of these systemic inequities, which is prevalent in the state of Wyoming.

The school-to-prison pipeline is the product of school safety and disciplinary policies that facilitate a process by which students are funneled out of schools and classrooms and into criminal justice institutions such as prisons and jails. There are several significant contributing factors to the school-to-prison pipeline issue. The first is the lack of resources in public schools due to underfunding. Educational administrative research has shown that there are proven and effective methods in terms of disciplinary measures that schools and districts can take. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a practice that shifts disciplinary measures away from restrictive, reactive, and punitive measures and implements methods founded on restorative justice principles and principles of equity. Effectively implementing these practices requires a commitment to maintaining small classroom sizes, hiring qualified teachers, and dedicating funding for adequate counselors and special education services.

Over the past two years, special education funding has been capped.

During the 2020 Wyoming Budget session, measures were actively being taken to reinstate the cap on special education funding despite the reality that special education costs will increase substantially over the next few years. This increase can be attributed to a variety of factors, but the three most substantial factors are the increase in the number of students for whom it is deemed necessary to implement an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), the severity of disabilities and special needs, and the nationwide trend of the increased cost of health care. The legislature has consistently pushed to implement cuts to Wyoming education, despite the recognition that education funding as it stands in the state is currently contributing to a shortage in appropriate school facilities and the ability to attract and retain high-quality educators, counselors, and support staff.

Another factor contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline issue are zero-tolerance policies that lead to in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, and expulsions. Zero-tolerance policies are the policy response to a lack of resources coupled with the national focus on school safety in light of violent school events like school shootings. These policies increasingly implement harsh penalties for minor misbehavior and disproportionately impact students of color and low-income students. The utilization of zero-tolerance policies bypasses due process protections, especially in regard to suspensions or expulsions. Instead of focusing on resolving underlying issues with the student, whether at home, related to drug or alcohol abuse, homelessness, or undiagnosed and untreated mental illness, schools who implement zero-tolerance policies have come to rely on suspensions and expulsions as a means of disciplinary measures. The distinction between what are termed subjective violations compared to objective violations adds an additional layer to this issue.

As the term implies, subjective violations are those that rely strictly on the perception of the teacher, administrator, and/or support staff when it comes to determining what constitutes a rule violation and a punishable offense. These include offenses such as talking back to the teacher, horseplay, and uniform violations. The objective offenses are violations that do not rely on perception and include things such as bringing weapons to school, tobacco use, and drug and alcohol use. It is noteworthy that most of the students are disciplined for subjective offenses. Compared to their white counterparts, minority students are disciplined with disproportionate frequency and severity in public schools. According to a report issued by the Wyoming Community Foundation and the University of Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center, “this discrepancy is a direct result of implicit bias.”

Finally, under-resourced and understaffed schools have come to utilize School Resource Officers (SRO’s) as a means to address student disciplinary measures. While a coordinated and cooperative approach between educators, administrators, counselors, and SRO’s can be effective if restorative justice practices are implemented instead of punitive approaches, the impact of SRO’s on the School to Prison Pipeline cannot go unrecognized. In most cases, these officers have little to no training in working with youth populations. What is more, while the intent of SRO’s is to protect students and ensure school safety, the result is that youth are more likely to be the subject of school-based arrests, most of which are for non-violent offenses, such as disruptive behavior. The occurrence of negative law enforcement contact such as this has negative impacts on students from missing class, a greater likelihood of expulsion or dropping out, lifelong stigmatism, and continued or increased incidents of negative law enforcement contact.

Wyoming, on a per capita basis, expels more students than neighboring states. The most recent data, from the 2015-2016 school year, demonstrate that Wyoming schools expelled 134 students out of a total enrolment population of 94,002. During the same time, Montana, with a substantially higher K-12 student population of 145,319 expelled only 95 students. Likewise, South Dakota schools with a total K-12 student population of 98,403 for the sample year expelled a total of 76 students.

Following the school-to-prison pipeline model, students having been disciplined with these types of punitive measures—or those having negative contact with law enforcement—are at greater risk of being incarcerated. The most recent data for the corresponding time frame demonstrates that Wyoming’s juvenile custody rate far exceeds that of our neighboring states Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado. In 2015, these juvenile custody rates compared to our neighboring states only become more problematic when the data is disaggregated by race. Only Montana has a higher juvenile custody rate than Wyoming amongst these same states. When it comes to Native American youth, Wyoming again has a far more significant rate of juvenile custody than neighboring states, even those like Montana, South Dakota, and New Mexico, which have substantial Native American populations. Adding to this problem for the state of Wyoming is the state’s youth incarceration rate. According to the ACLU, Wyoming has the second-highest rate for youth incarceration in the United States, second only to South Dakota.

Ensuring that the children of Wyoming, regardless of income levels and regardless of race, receive a high-quality education that prepares them for a successful future is an inherent Wyoming value. Funneling disadvantaged Wyoming youth into the school-to-prison pipeline is counterproductive to the established goal of education in the state. The success of students in their academic life, and in their youth, contributes directly to the success of our state. Students who are expelled or dropout are far more likely to have higher levels of unemployment or low-wage employment, a higher rate of utilization of social safety net programs, and higher rates of negative law enforcement contact and imprisonment. The investment in the children of Wyoming needs to be made upfront and in a manner that reduces the likelihood of those aforementioned negative life experiences. Focuses should be shifted away from punitive disciplinary measures and towards proven restorative justice practices coupled with an investment in readily accessible mental and social health services for Wyoming students. Until these shifts are made, we are not only failing the students and youth of Wyoming; we are failing the state as a whole.

Learn more about social and racial justice resources from the National Education Association:

See the full "Racial Disparities in the Equality State" report:

Learn more about the school-to-prison pipeline from the Advancement Project:

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