School of Thought: School-to-prison pipeline starts early; so must its prevention

California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill last weekend that would put a ban on “disruption and defiance” suspensions for fourth to eighth graders. Essentially, vetoing this bill allows students who are prone to acting out in the classroom to be pushed out of the classroom and directly into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Here’s how the pipeline works. Students who act out often do so because of developmental or familial issues that need attention. Consequently, administrators are inclined to suspend them. Moreover, schools implement zero-tolerance policies when they aren’t equipped to handle students’ emotional issues. Because teachers in overcrowded schools can’t give attention to individual students, it becomes easier for schools to give out suspensions than to actually help students deal with issues.

Keeping students out of school is blatantly ineffective. It causes them to fall behind on schoolwork, makes them more likely to fail classes and, eventually, influences many to drop out of school. Refusing students the right to learn is the worst punishment. Instead of learning, these kids might end up getting into trouble and putting themselves into unsafe situations because they are denied the safety of a classroom.

The bill Brown vetoed extends a ban that already exists for students in grades K–3, but the “Keep Kids in School” Act would’ve made the ban permanent for K–5 students, and create a temporary ban for 6th to 8th graders that would expire in 2023.

Brown says he vetoed the bill because he wants individual schools and classrooms to make disciplinary decisions, according to his statement to the California State Senate. But individual teachers and administrators often choose to suspend students not because it’s the best way to handle the students, but because it’s often the only option teachers have that allows them to continue teaching effectively.

Instead of supporting “disruptive and defiant” students and addressing the root causes of their behavior, schools push these students out of the classroom because of overcrowding and lack of resources. One of Brown’s defenses for vetoing the bill was that part of the approved 2018 California budget included $15 million specifically for improving disciplinary practices in schools. This sounds promising, but when there are 7,508 public schools for elementary and middle school children in California, according to the California Department of Education, that comes out to just under $2,000 per school.

As a result, schools will continue to punish students with suspension, the main contributor to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Another part of the problem are so-called “school resource officers,” who, more often than not, are just regular policemen who have not set foot in a classroom since they were in school themselves. The presence of law enforcement in schools increases the possibility for student arrest, rather than school disciplinary action. These students can then can end up in juvenile detention centers.

At this point, most of the kids don’t get an education at all, because they’re already in a watered-down prison. This further debilitates their ability to finish school, and means they already have a juvenile record before they would otherwise start high school. To make matters worse, students are often unable to return to school because they’ve already fallen so far behind. Without an education and with a juvenile record (which typically can’t be sealed until age 18 or five years after a conviction), these kids are unable to get jobs, and find themselves getting into more trouble. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 68 percent of state prisoners nationwide don’t have high school diplomas.

Of course, it’s important to note how these policies disproportionately affect minority and disabled students. In California, African American and Latino boys made up half of all “defiance and disruption” suspensions in the 2016-17 school year, despite making up only 30.7 percent of all students, according to the ACLU of Southern California. Similarly, while students with disabilities make up 12 percent of California students, they made up 28 percent of suspensions in the state during the 2016-17 school year.

The students who end up in this pipeline are already the most vulnerable. Instead of helping them, our current policies are telling them that they don’t belong in the classroom. A ban on these suspensions is a great way forward, but there’s also more schools can do with the right resources.

Instead of employing “school resource officers,” we should invest in hiring counselors and social workers to help vulnerable students. Instead of overcrowding classrooms, we must reduce class sizes and give teachers bias and cultural competency training, so minority students are not disproportionately punished in the classroom. Instead of pushing students away from school, we need to implement restorative practices that make punishment a learning opportunity for students to improve their behavior.

Too often, schools inadvertently turn vulnerable students into criminals through excessive and unnecessary punishments. Schools are meant to be places of learning and development. Let’s give every student a fair chance before we kick them out.

Karan Nevatia is a sophomore majoring in journalism. He is also a multimedia editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “School of Thought,” runs every other Thursday.