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Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Racial Disparity in School Discipline Issues
By Iris Zhang
Iris Zhang is a rising junior at University of Pennsylvania.
The scholarship on the link between lack of education and the disproportionately high rates of imprisonment of minorities is clear. According to Wald and Losen, “68% of state prison inmates in 1997 had not completed high school. 75% of youths under age 18 who have been sentenced to adult prisons have not completed 10th grade.”  Researchers claim that being “suspended, expelled or held back” during middle school is the “single largest predictor” of an adolescent female’s arrest.
Thus, we have the “school-to-prison” pipeline, whereby youth are criminalized for their behaviors in school and sent directly into the prison system. It doesn’t help that schools facing a dearth of resources are increasingly relying on “zero-tolerance” policies that push out low-performing students or students who commit minor infractions through the use of suspensions and expulsions.  Schools have significant discretion when it comes to the use these disciplinary measures, and, overwhelmingly, a disproportionate amount of students who are suspended or expelled are minorities. 
Earlier this month, the New York Attorney General’s Office reached a settlement with the Syracuse School District to stop discriminatory suspension practices. Taking a student out of the classroom, or out of the school environment altogether, can have devastating effects on the long-term learning ability of the child.  They found that in the course of the 2012-2013 school year, 30% of all students in the district were suspended at least once, one of the highest suspension rates in the nation.  Racial disparities within the statistics are staggering; 25% of black students received at least one out-of-school suspension while only 12% of white students did. The difference is statistically significant. In fact, controlling for the types of incidents for which students were disciplined, black students were more likely to be disciplined for non-violent conducts, such as “Other Disruptive Incidents” (whose definition is extremely broad).
New York State Education Law is comprehensive on due process when it comes to suspending and expelling students. N.Y. Educ. Law §3214 details the actions schools must take when suspending a student. Syracuse school district failed to follow a number of them, including the requirement that it provide students’ parents with written notice, a chance to fair panel hearing to contest the suspension, and most importantly, opportunities for alternative education services to prevent the child from falling behind in schoolwork as a result of the suspension. The Office found that the school district not only violated the aforementioned state education laws, but also Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits local entities that receive federal funding (including the school district) from discriminating against certain students in any way. Furthermore, as a large percentage of students who were disciplined suffered from disabilities, the district was also found to have violated the Individuals with Disabilities Act, which stipulates that students with disabilities are entitled to certain procedural rights. The district was required to immediately cease any such discriminatory practices, revise its disciplinary practices to use exclusion only as a last resort form of discipline, and conduct training for teachers, among other actions. 
This type of civil rights litigation is important for ensuring that students have equal access to safe school environments that are conducive to learning. Civil rights organizations have long been advocating the dismantling of the “zero-tolerance” policy. Needless to say, data on school discipline is paramount to the success of the continued enforcement of the CRA, especially in detecting any patterns of discrimination. Since 1968, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has collected data on public schools and has published a biennial results report. The UCLA Civil Rights Project also has a web tool that helps users make meaningful comparisons across school districts, school types, race, gender and other characteristics.
 Wald, Johanna and Daniel Losen, “Defining and Redirecting a School-To-Prison Pipeline.” Framing paper for the School-to-Prison Pipeline research conference, 2003: pg. 2. http://www.idmarch.org/document/%20/4Aqm-show/Microsoft%20Word%20-%20Framing%20Paper%20STP%20May%2012.doc. Last accessed July 20, 2014.
 American Civil Liberties Union. “What Is The School-to-Prison Pipeline?”. https://www.aclu.org/racial-justice/what-school-prison-pipeline. Last accessed July 20, 2014.
 Carr, Sarah. “Do ‘Zero Tolerance’ School Discipline Policies Go Too Far?”. Time. May 22, 2012. http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2115402,00.html. Last accessed July 20, 2014.
 Yudof, Mark G. “Suspension and Expulsion of Black Students from the Public Schools: Academic Capital Punishment and the Constitution.” Law and Contemporary Problems 39.2 (Spring, 1975): 474-411.
 Mulder, James T. “Syracuse has one of the highest suspension rates in nation, state attorney general finds.” Syracuse.com, July 13, 2014. http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2014/06/y_general_syracuse_has_one_of_the_highest_student_suspension_rates_in.html. Last accessed July 20, 2014.
 NYAG Press Release, “A.G. Schneiderman Announces Agreement Addressing Discipline Issues in Syracuse.” July 10, 2014. http://www.ag.ny.gov/press-release/ag-schneiderman-announces-agreement-addressing-school-discipline-issues-syracuse. Last accessed July 20, 2014.
Photo Credit: Flickr user alamosbasement
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