Midyear Meeting

'School-to-prison pipeline' must end, lawyers and educators say


Students of color, particularly boys, are suspended and expelled at alarming rates, and zero-tolerance school discipline polices fail the communities they serve, said speakers on an panel sponsored by various ABA entities.

Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be expelled than white students, said Nancy Heitzeg, a St. Paul, Minn., critical race theory professor who teaches at St. Catherine University. She also noted that more than 70 percent of the students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement were black or Latino. Many of them, she added, also had special needs addressed by Individualized Education Plans.

High-stakes testing also complicates the issue, Heitzeg said, and schools are using suspensions and expulsions to push out underperforming students. She noted the statistics at an ABA Midyear Meeting panel discussion titled “The School-to-Prison Pipeline: What are the Problems? What are the Solutions?” The Friday event was jointly sponsored by the ABA’s Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice, the Criminal Justice Section and the Counsel for Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline.

“They say we should ‘Leave No Child Behind.’ The fact is we are leaving the majority of the nation’s future behind,” said Janette C. Wilson, another panelist. A lawyer, pastor and former teacher, Wilson spoke of a “Gestapo-type environment” at schools.

“Once you’re in the building, the search-and-seizure procedure that greets you at the front door,” Wilson said, mentioning police stationed in public high schools.

Many children harmed by school discipline policies don’t have traditional support structures at home, she added.

“This is not the Leave it to Beaver generation. It’s more like Beavis and Butthead,” Wilson said. “There is no structure to prepare young people for going into a building that is hostile when they get there.”

Another concern, said Robert Saunooke, a Florida lawyer who chairs the ABA’s Tribal Courts Council, is that teachers and school leadership often do not take the time to understand students as individuals.

“All of our children bring to the education system who they are. There seems to be a disconnect about the education system wanting to know about the students and their families, and their families wanting to tell that system about their lives,” said Saunooke, an enrolled member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“If we could fill that gap, it might make it much better,” he added. “This Gestapo idea we have to police children instead of care for children is just the wrong approach.”

Another panelist, Artika R. Tyner, noted that 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education.

“How have we progressed since then?” she asked, noting that school systems with unreasonable discipline policies present significant hurdles.

“We can no longer allow this pipeline to expand and continue. My hope is that we can ban together as lawyers and as social engineers to say this is wrong and it must stop,” said Tyner, a clinical law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, who also serves as its diversity director.

Panelists and attendees had various ideas for improvement, including training programs that help parents and caregivers file complaints with federal agencies. New Orleans law students who help expelled or suspended students exercise their statutory rights at administration hearings through a program called Stand Up for Each Other! also spoke about their work.

Mariame Kaba, a Chicago educator, mentioned anti-oppression training for school staff and administration rather than diversity training. Kaba, the founder of Project NIA, which focuses on ending Illinois youth incarceration, described “an actual anti-blackness” taking place in school systems.

“If we can’t name it, we can’t solve it,” Kaba said. “People are scared to death of black kids, including black people. Young people sense that fear and loathing of them, and they act accordingly.”

Updated Sunday, Feb. 9, to change the headline.

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