One Way to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Since the Great Recession began in 2007, no one’s had more trouble finding work than low-income Asian, black, and Hispanic male teenagers. That’s the main idea in two recent articles in The Wall Street Journal (available here and here) that rely on research from Andrew Sum, a professor who produces a remarkable number of papers for Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies (CLMS).

As Ben Casselman, author of The Wall Street Journal articles, notes, working during the summer is not only a way for high schoolers to earn money. People who held jobs in their teens are more likely to graduate from high school, and to be employed and have higher earnings in their early 20s than people who didn’t find paid work during the summer, according to a CLMS paper titled “The Continued Crisis in Teen Employment in the U.S. and Massachusetts.”

Also worth noting, in that and other CLMS papers, are connections between jobless teenagers and high-school graduation rates that should catch the attention of reformers concerned with excessive school discipline.

For over a decade, school reformers have talked about ending the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a set of circumstances leading to high numbers of suspensions, expulsions, and in-school arrests—especially of low-income males and children of color—for infractions that are not serious (these include: an arrest for a 6 year old who threw a temper tantrum and a jail sentence for a 14-year-old who hit another student with a pencil). In school districts where high suspension rates are an issue, many reformers have identified a pattern they call the push-out problem: When a student receives a suspension, they often fall into a predictable series of events. They have too much free time on their hands, get into trouble with their friends, and end up with an arrest or a citation from the police—and a lower chance of graduating, according to a 2013 Chicago study. In short, they have been pushed out. A report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA released this April linked an out-of-school suspension in 9th grade with lower graduation rates. Some reformers, like Joyce Parker, the director of Citizens for a Better Greenville in Greenville, Mississippi, say reducing suspensions is one of their top priorities. “When children are not in schools, they are more likely to end up in jail,” she says.

Research from the CLMS supports that sentiment, although the data studied come from an environment much different than the rural Mississippi Delta, where Greenville is located. (Incidentally, teenagers in Mississippi had 21st highest unemployment rate in the country in 2012.) In a 2013 study of youth from low-income Boston neighborhoods, Sum and his colleagues found that young people who participated in paid “work experiences … were significantly more likely than their comparison peers to experience an improvement in risky, deviant, or violent behaviors or to avoid a deterioration in such behaviors over the summer.” In another CLMS paper, Sum and his co-authors wrote that “work in high school helps lower the high school dropout rate, especially among males” and that when they work during the summer “lower income males are less likely to become involved with crime and the juvenile justice system.”

The connection between helping teenagers find summer jobs and reducing suspensions is that keeping kids involved in safe, constructive activities whether school is in session or not helps them later in life. Policymakers who help young people now will also be helping them later. Districts with high numbers of suspensions can rewrite their discipline codes to eliminate suspensions and expulsions as possible punishments for minor misbehavior, as Greenville Public Schools did recently, resulting in a drop of 260 expulsion hearings to 40 over two years, according to figures from the superintendent. To help teenagers find summer work, Congress and the states can set aside funds for programs that subsidize summer jobs for teenagers, as the Massachusetts’ YouthWorks initiative does, or to city-based efforts that help low-income youth find work, like Boston’s SummerWorks program. When designing these and other policies, politicians would also do well to keep in mind that the least advantaged are those who tend to suffer the most during a downturn—and that they are the ones most in need of assistance.

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The school-to-prison pipeline: an epidemic that is plaguing schools across the nation. Far too often, students are suspended, expelled or even arrested for minor offenses that leave visits to the principal’s office a thing of the past. Statistics reflect that these policies disproportionately target students of color and those with a history of abuse, neglect, poverty or learning disabilities.

Students who are forced out of school for disruptive behavior are usually sent back to the origin of their angst and unhappiness—their home environments or their neighborhoods, which are filled with negative influence. Those who are forced out for smaller offenses become hardened, confused, embittered. Those who are unnecessarily forced out of school become stigmatized and fall behind in their studies; many eventually decide to drop out of school altogether, and many others commit crimes in their communities.

It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason for the school-to-prison pipeline. Many attribute it to the zero tolerance policies that took form after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Others blame educators, accusing them of pushing out students who score lower on standardized tests in order to improve the school’s overall test scores. And some blame overzealous policing efforts. The reasons are many, but the solutions are not as plentiful.
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