Author’s note: I originally prepared this essay with the intention of sending it to the local newspapers. Then, just decided to publish it here. Not sure why I’m telling you this, just felt like I should. This is your Tuesday To-Do list item-educating yourself on the school to prison pipeline and what it means for our kids.
It was recently announced that four Chester County school districts-Kennett Consolidated, Great Valley, Oxford Area and Octorara would be receiving grants to fund police officers in their schools. The Daily Local also noted that specifically in Kennett, the police officers will be at the high school and Mary D. Lang Kindergarten Center. One would assume Mary D. Lang was chosen because of Sandy Hook as I hope we are not afraid of our own community’s five-year-olds. The funding was made available through a grant program that was started via the Pennsylvania Safe Schools Act.
But before you breathe a huge sigh of relief at the thought of having a safe school, there’s something parents should know. Having police officers in our schools does not make them safer, it merely gives parents and the community a false sense of security while putting certain segments of our student population at higher risk for being pushed through the school to prison pipeline. Specifically, minorities and those with disabilities. Also, there has been no mention of what governance these officers will follow, once they are in the schools. What is their role? What will they do?
The phenomenon of having officers in schools has wielded a result that many child advocates feared would happen-incidents that should be handled by teachers and principals are now being handled by police officers and putting students, some as young as 7 or 10, into the justice system for minor offenses. While schools may initially bring in police officers with the intent to provide security, the officers often end up handling discipline and handing out charges of disorderly conduct or assault. We are now about two decades into schools adopting “zero tolerance” policies and having armed police officers in our schools. School shootings have not decreased and we have seen a surge of students being arrested while at school.
Furthermore, there is a plethora of evidence to show that students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by these policies. If you are black or Latino, you are more than four times more likely to be suspended or arrested at school than your non-minority peers. If you have a disability, you are six times more likely to experience this. While students with learning disabilities and other disabilities generally make up about 20% of the average school district population, they represent anywhere from 75% to 90% of the students who are suspended or arrested in a school, according to a report in the New York Times.
Locally, we are seeing this trend as well. Area districts are already suspending minority students with disabilities as young as kindergarten and second grade. When we become complacent about suspending 8-year-olds, we’ve lost our way. There is no study that will show you that an out-of-school suspension is anything but punitive: there are no pedagogical reasons to suspend children. In fact, it only puts them further behind in their school work, which can lead to more negative behavior and therefore more suspensions and it becomes a vicious cycle that the child cannot escape. School suspensions, arrests and repeated removal from the classroom are only successful at one thing-disrupting a child’s academic progress and long-term negative consequences.
According to Invisible Children, over 85% of children who come into contact with the Juvenile Justice system are functionally illiterate and over 75% of our prison population is illiterate. If an inmate receives reading help he has only a 16% chance of returning to prison as opposed to 70% without. We are failing our children if we just continue to suspend and discipline them without addressing the underlying disabilities. Socially, our society makes it much more desirable to be the “bad kid” instead of the “dumb kid” which exacerbates the problem. We are not only failing our children, we are failing ourselves. Prevention is more cost effective than treatment. Spend a bit more on education now, spend much less on prison later.
We have seen what happens when we ramp up police presence and other security measures in response to a shooting or other violent act. In Colorado, it resulted in more students getting arrested for minor misbehaviors, more students being pushed out of school, and a declining sense of safety in schools. These unintended consequences are persistent and pervasive despite efforts by parents, students, and the school district, the high arrest rates and racial disparities that resulted from increased police presence and zero tolerance policies still exist. (Alliance for Educational Justice, 2013)
Politicians are not looking at the facts, just the votes. Having police in schools makes parents and communities feel safer, but there is no evidence that they are safer. Yet, to oppose measures like this is akin to condoning school shootings, so they pass the bills. And our tax dollars are wasted on another effort in futility. Our juvenile arrest rate is skyrocketing yet the majority of them (over 90%) are for minor, non-violent offenses. Violence and serious crime among teens is actually down for the past two decades. (Vera Institute of Justice, 2013) Effective discipline is essential for a school to be successful. However, there is no evidence that having an officer in a school is a deterrent for anyone who is thinking of committing a crime.
It doesn’t all have to be doom and gloom though. There are programs that work. Keeping kids engaged in schools and in their community. Utilizing a restorative justice program. There are many other options. Contrary to what the media and powerful lobbyists would like you to think, there are other things that work to stop “a bad guy with a gun” besides a good guy with a gun. Proper mental treatment and reduction of negative stigmas. Reasonable background checks and ammunition limits. Education, not incarceration, is the answer.
Get yourself educated. These are your children. These are your tax dollars. Let’s not waste either resource. Both are valuable resources but one is definitely more valuable than the other–let’s help our politicians see that too.