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February 16, 2020

ABA roadmaps way to turn off spigot to school-to-prison pipeline

The school-to-prison pipeline is a relatively new term for a problem that has been plaguing America for years. It describes failures in the education system where certain groups of students — students of color, with disabilities, or LGBTQ — are disproportionately disciplined more harshly, including referral to law enforcement for minimal misbehavior; achieve at lower levels; and eventually drop or are pushed out of school, often into juvenile justice facilities and prison.

A transition plan to bring a student back into the classroom is an often-overlooked part of the system.

A transition plan to bring a student back into the classroom is an often-overlooked part of the system.

Jonathan Kirn/The Image Bank

The American Bar Association has been studying and addressing the problem and its Task Force on Reversing the School to Prison Pipeline has issued a preliminary report with recommendations. At the ABA’s 2020 Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas, the ABA Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice held a program on Feb. 15 titled “School to Prison Pipeline: From Report to Action,” part of the Defending Liberty Pursuing Justice Summit to focus on how the legal profession can work on the state and local level to implement the report’s five primary recommendations to solve the problem.

Twanda Turner-Hawkins, a member of COREJ and director of Global Litigation for Dematic Corp. and KION Americas, moderated the panel discussion and summarized the ABA’s report recommendations into five areas that became ABA policy in 2016:

  • Adopt policies, legislation and initiatives designed to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline whereby students of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQ students, homeless students and other marginalized youth constituencies are disproportionately impacted by systemic inequities in education and over-discipline resulting in disparate school dropout or “push-out” rates and juvenile justice system or prison interactions.
  • Adopt laws and policies supporting legal representation for students at point of exclusion from school, including suspension and expulsion hearings.
  • Support ongoing implicit bias training for teachers, administrators, school resource officers, police, juvenile judges, prosecutors and lawyers and others involved with students.
  • Require data reporting relating to school discipline, including distinctions between educator discipline and law enforcement discipline to the Office of Civil Rights.
  • Support legislation that eliminates the use of suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement for lower-level offenses.

The panel consisted of people who have worked as advocates for youth who have been subject to the system. Andrew Hairston, a civil rights attorney and director of the Texas Appleseed School-to- Prison Pipeline Project, talked about how “modern, historic racism” and the “failure to acknowledge the humanity” of these students were the cause of the problem.

Sonya Crider, executive director of the Downtown Seattle YMCA, stressed the importance of teachers having classroom management skills. She warned against having a teacher make the first call at any sign of trouble to the school resource officer. She suggested that if you find out what a child was doing, many times it was not disruptive behavior and a conversation can prevent escalation.

Carla Laroche, a clinical professor at the Florida State University College of Law Public Interest Law Center, talked about the importance of getting the child’s point of view, to ask the question, “What happened to you?” She pointed out that policies such as dress codes or the involvement of school resource officers can create consequences that we do not even think about.

When a student is suspended, planning a transition plan to bring the student back into the classroom without falling behind is an often-overlooked part of the system, according to Steven Aleman, who serves as an in-house expert for Disability Rights Texas. He said that in Texas, a student transition plan is now required, but that is not the case in all states. He suggested using state statutes and regulations, but also unconventional means such as budget tools to institute policies to end the school-to-prison pipeline.

The panel encouraged everyone to read the preliminary report at, study the data and take ideas back to their home jurisdictions to help solve the problem.

Paulette Brown, who served as ABA President in 2015-16 and was instrumental in pushing forward the report and the ABA policy, introduced the panel. She discussed the harm and consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline and the problems of implicit bias that help fuel the system.

Being punished with suspension or expulsion and subsequently entering the justice system can put many lives on the wrong road for no good reason. “A child who was not a criminal before can become one,” Brown said. And that hurts all of society.