February 10, 2014

Lawyers, community activists seek to end the school-to-prison pipeline

A 14-year-old boy threw a pen out a school bus window and it hit a car. He was then charged with a felony for hurling a projectile and instead of going to school, he sat in a prison cell.

This is one of many troubling examples of a trend analyzed during an American Bar Association town hall forum, “The School-to-Prison Pipeline: What are the Problems? What are the Solutions?” during the 2014 ABA Midyear Meeting in Chicago.

“This gestapo idea that we have to police instead of care for children is just the wrong approach,” said Robert Saunooke, a lawyer with his own practice in Miramar, Fla. In American schools today, “zero tolerance” policies and practices such as the use of metal detectors and a heavy police presence create a “pipeline for failure,” Saunooke said.

Rev. Janette Wilson, senior advisor to Rev. Jesse Jackson and manager of school climate for Chicago Public Schools, argued that children are strategically being pushed into the juvenile system, and eventually the adult system. "This push out is based on the idea of our country to increase the prison population," said Wilson. "It is racist, and it is calculated, and it is not accidental."

Nancy Heitzeg, professor of sociology and co-director of the Interdisciplinary Critical Studies of Race/Ethnicity Program at St. Catherine University, agreed with Wilson that the cycle is intentional. Heitzeg took issue with how much schools are becoming like prisons under the guise of “security.” She reported that children are both indirectly routed into the pipeline through suspension and expulsion, and directly routed by the increased presence of police in the schools.

Experts stressed the need for more government funding in schools rather than investing money in incarceration facilities. “There needs to be a concerted effort from us towards the politicians to stop the spending on these useless things that don’t do anything to help us,” Saunooke said. He admitted the mistakes he made in high school would probably have interfered with him becoming an attorney if he was growing up in today’s education system.

 “I have friends who are cops who would rather be solving murders,” said Mariame Kaba, founding director of Project NIA, a grassroots organization that aims to end youth incarceration in Illinois. “They don’t want to be arresting children who are being disobedient or getting into a tantrum.”

A new report by the Department of Education, “Guiding Principles: A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline,” was heralded by forum participants as a great step forward at the federal level to revise discipline practices. One of the reform ideas discussed was restorative justice, a practice with a focus on rehabilitation and counseling as a replacement for punishments like suspension, expulsion and arrest.

As director of the Children and Family Justice Center and a clinical assistant professor at the Bluhm Legal Clinic at the Northwestern University School of Law, Julie Biehl identified the school-to-prison pipeline as a “real access-to-justice issue that every lawyer should take seriously.” She called on every lawyer to take a case of a child being expelled from school, because the need is great.

At the forum were representatives with the Stand Up for Each Other! project in New Orleans, which pairs law students with students that need a representative at their suspension or expulsion hearing. Forum participants encouraged the representatives to share the project with the ABA Law Student Division to reach a national scale. “I think this is a project that every law student should be involved in doing across the country,” Biehl said.

The ABA’s involvement with this issue will continue to the 2014 ABA Annual Meeting in Boston, as well as in other cities in the future, organizers said. “The ABA can help make sure that nationally, there is a consistent framework in these state legislatures which requires certain things to be for every child,” Wilson said.

Artika Tyner, clinical law faculty and director of diversity at the University of St. Thomas, sees lawyers like her as pivotal to stopping the cycle from continuing or getting worse.

“I hope we can band together as lawyers, as social engineers, to say we can make a difference, that this is wrong and it must stop,” Tyner said.

The town hall forum was sponsored by the ABA Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice, Criminal Justice Section and the Council on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline.