A national trend is pushing students who misbehave out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The school-to-prison pipeline (STPP) is a result of the objective application of harsh disciplinary measures and the overuse of referrals to law enforcement that set up vulnerable students for failure. These policies include zero-tolerance school discipline, disproportionate applications of student suspensions, and aggressive testing and administrative practices. A high percentage of the children filtered into this pipeline come from minority populations, struggle with learning disabilities, and/or suffer from poverty, abuse, or neglect. Empirically supported findings by scholars have proven that learning and investment in education lead to overall higher public safety and lower crime rates. It is time that Athens takes serious measures to reduce the inordinate levels of students entering this pipeline.
According to national data collected by Athens for Everyone, “more than 43,000 youths are incarcerated on any given day.” About ⅔ of these youth never return to school after completing their sentences. In Georgia, 78% of state prisons inmates and over 70% of jail inmates did not graduate high school. Children who are entered into this pipeline tend to come from disadvantaged backgrounds and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished, and sent away, creating an ongoing cycle in the prison system and spiking rates of recidivism.
In particular, the STPP adversely impacts Black and Hispanic students who have historically experienced suspension and expulsion at much higher rates than white students. The Georgia Coalition Working to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline found that “African American students are three and a half times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension (OSS) than white students.” Data has shown that a student who is suspended or expelled is less likely to complete high school and more than twice as likely to be arrested, ending up in the juvenile justice system the following year. Thus, unnecessarily severe school punishments are a severe threat to racial injustice.
Georgia already has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and in the world, locking up approximately 968 per 100,000 people (including juvenile justice facilities), and Blacks and Latinos are overrepresented in this population. In Athens specifically, almost half of all cases in Juvenile Court involve African Americans. The STPP and Clarke County’s lack of public school educational services will only perpetuate these numbers as disadvantaged youth are irrationally criminalized by harsh disciplinary policies.
The ACLU argues that the STPP begins with a lack of resources in public schools such as overcrowded classrooms, few qualified teachers, and insufficient funding for necessary services (counseling and special education). Moreover, policies like the No Child Left Behind Act offer incentives for schools to boost overall test scores and filter out low-performing students. As a result, schools have deferred to zero-tolerance policies that impose severe punishments for breaking the rules, regardless of the conditions.
Public schools must seek alternative, anti-discriminative approaches to disciplinary action. This means erasing zero-tolerance policies and applying measures that promote restorative justice. First, schools should review all discipline policies and eliminate any that criminalize students. Second, they must provide comprehensive training on de-escalation and anti-discrimination to administrative staff, faculty, and any on-site law enforcement.
These measures are only the beginning of a long-lasting fight against the STPP. Reducing recidivism will require an integrated approach through the school system and juvenile courts, as well as social services, educational support programs, and mental health counseling. As a community, we have the power to mobilize and train grassroots organizations and local stakeholders to join in the fight for eliminating the STPP through local, state, and national action.