In recent years, a disturbing shift has occurred in our education system. Rather than employ traditional disciplinary measures, such as counseling or detention, when students misbehave, schools are becoming increasingly dependent on suspensions, expulsions, and law enforcement to punish students. Children are being arrested or removed from schools, even for minor discretions, at alarming rates around the country.
Students cannot learn, and teachers cannot teach, in unsafe schools. But suspension, expulsion, and arrest do not make schools safer. Instead, the American Psychological Association has found that these practices harm academic achievement for all students while increasing the chances that those excluded will be held back, drop out, and become involved with the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Despite these findings, school discipline rates are at their all-time highs – double those of the 1970s. Pressed by high-stakes testing and inadequate resources, many schools are choosing to forego mentorship and intervention for students in favor of exclusion and arrest. Indeed, the current approach to educational accountability offers educators the perverse incentive to choose whom to educate – and to remove the rest.
As the rates of discipline have dramatically increased, disciplinary disparities on racial lines have become more pervasive. Students of color, particularly African-American boys, account for an overwhelming number of school-enforced punishments, as well as the majority of arrests for school-related incidents around the country. African-American students overall are now nearly three times as likely to be suspended, and Latino students are nearly one-and-a-half times as likely to be suspended, as their white peers.
Historical inequalities in the education system—segregated education, concentrated poverty, and longstanding stereotypes—influence how school officials and law enforcement both label children and treat students who present challenging behavior. Studies show that students of color receive harsher punishments for engaging in the same conduct as white students. Racially isolated schools that primarily educate students of color are more likely to be among the nation’s “dropout factories” and also among those that utilize the harshest, most exclusionary means of discipline.
This funneling of students out of school and into the streets and the juvenile correction system perpetuates a cycle known as the “School-to-Prison-Pipeline,” depriving children and youth of meaningful opportunities for education, future employment, and participation in our democracy. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) recognizes the devastating affects of criminalizing rather than educating children and youth, and is dedicated to reversing the pipeline. In partnership with community organizations, LDF has introduced and proposed a number of groundbreaking programs and advocacy efforts aimed at returning the emphasis to education instead of exclusion and incarceration.