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December 01, 2012

Reforms needed to address school to prison pipeline

“There is growing evidence that our public schools overly rely upon suspension, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement in managing student behavior,” ABA President Laurel G. Bellows said in a statement submitted for a Dec. 12 hearing on the “school to prison pipeline,” a cycle perpetuated by school discipline practices that unnecessarily remove students from the classroom.

In her statement to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, Bellows emphasized that these practices have a disproportionate impact on students of color, students with disabilities and other subgroups, and result in increased juvenile justice system involvement for suspended or expelled students.

“Student involvement in the juvenile justice system in turn substantially increases the likelihood that these students will later serve time in our nation’s prisons and face life-long collateral consequences creating barriers to adult success and productivity,” she said.

She noted that ABA policy adopted in 2001 opposes, in principle, “ ‘zero tolerance’ policies that have a discriminatory effect, or mandate either expulsion or referral of students to juvenile or criminal court, without regard to the circumstances or nature of the offense or the student’s history.”

Additional policy adopted by the ABA in 2009 urges federal agencies to assure accountability and to ensure that no group of students is disparately subject to school discipline or exclusion. Research, she said, has begun to cast doubt on the effectiveness of harsh discipline policies and reveals that the majority of incidents for which students are excluded from school are related to nonviolent disciplinary offenses such as tardiness, absenteeism, disrespect and altercations between students.

Bellows said the ABA recommends the following actions: end harsh discipline policies that do not make schools safer but instead push youth out;  provide full procedural protections and counsel to youth in disciplinary hearings; end criminalization of truancy, disability-related behavior and other school-related conduct; ensure a path for return to school; implement strong civil rights monitoring and enforcement of school district practices; and support the implementation of evidence-based disciplinary practices.

The ABA also strongly supports reauthorization and amendment of the Juvenile  Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act to include, among other things, provisions to strengthen the current Disproportionate Minority Contact core protection and the Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders core protection prohibiting the locked detention of status offenders, which include truants, curfew violators, runaways, and youth who disobey their parents.

The Department of Justice, the Department of Education and other agencies are working in partnership to develop solutions to the school to prison pipeline issues through the Supportive School Discipline Initiative (SSDI) established in July 2011. The four key strategies of the SSCI include: building a national consensus for action; identifying research and data collection needs; issuing guidance for school personnel and law enforcement officials; and building awareness, knowledge and skills regarding disciplinary practices with the priority of keeping students in school, learning and safe.

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