Recognizing and Combating the "School-To-Prison" Pipeline In Texas

Criminalizing kids for minor misbehavior in our schools unnecessarily exposes them to our justice system and increases the likelihood they will drop out of school and face later incarceration. Involvement of all stakeholders, including judicial leaders, is imperative to developing collaborative, multifaceted solutions to this “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Chief Justice Jefferson Hon. Wallace B. Jefferson
Chief Justice, Supreme Court of Texas

We have all heard the stories: a boy issued a dozen misdemeanor tickets by school police for cursing, wearing baggy pants, and refusing to follow teachers’ instructions; an honor student expelled and charged with violent criminal conduct and possession of a weapon for shooting spitballs at fellow classmates; and a girl, age 12, ticketed for using perfume after her classmates claimed she had body odor. These extreme examples reflect a growing problem: the criminalization of children for nonviolent offenses that result in a trip not to the principal’s office, but to a courtroom.

A 2005 study by Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute concluded that, of the risk factors associated with future involvement in the juvenile justice system, the single greatest predictor is a history of disciplinary referrals at school (cited in Texas Appleseed, 2007: 2). Some have tagged this phenomenon—that school discipline serves as a gateway to the juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems—the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Nowhere is this more evident than in Texas, where one-third of all youth in a locked-down facility have already dropped out of school and more than 80 percent of Texas adult prison inmates are school dropouts (Texas Appleseed, 2007: 1-2).

Identifying the Problems

Two extensive studies of Texas public-school students shed light on the relationship between school discipline, dropout rates, and involvement in the justice system. The first study—Texas’ School-to-Prison Pipeline, a series of three reports by Texas Appleseed—examined disciplinary data self-reported by school districts and courts. The second study—Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement by the Council of State Governments Justice Center and Public Policy Research Institute—tracked all Texas public-school seventh graders in 2001, 2002, and 2003 (nearly one million students) for at least a six-year period.

The studies’ findings are troubling.

Suspensions and expulsions are common in schools today. Nationally, nearly 4 percent of all students were suspended in 1974. In 2006 that figure rose to 7 percent. Of the one million students studied in Texas, nearly 60 percent were suspended or expelled at least once between seventh and twelfth grade, and 15 percent received 11 or more suspensions or expulsions during that same period (Council of State Governments, 2011: x, 5, 36). Nationally, nearly 4 percent of all students were suspended in 1974. In 2006 that figure rose to 7 percent. Of the one million students studied in Texas, nearly 60 percent were suspended or expelled at least once between seventh and twelfth grade, and 15 percent received 11 or more suspensions or expulsions during that same period (Council of State Governments, 2011: x, 5, 36).

Ticketing is also common, used most often to punish students for lowlevel, nonviolent offenses like disruption of class, disorderly conduct, and truancy. Texas Appleseed conservatively estimates that more than 275,000 non-traffic tickets are issued to juveniles as young as six in Texas each year, 120,000 of those for truancy (2010c: 1, 18, 76). One municipal court judge in Houston estimates that he sees approximately 150 juvenile ticketing cases per day during the school year (St. George, 2011). Texas Appleseed conservatively estimates that more than 275,000 non-traffic tickets are issued to juveniles as young as six in Texas each year, 120,000 of those for truancy (2010c: 1, 18, 76). One municipal court judge in Houston estimates that he sees approximately 150 juvenile ticketing cases per day during the school year (St. George, 2011).

Nationally, nearly 4 percent of all students were suspended in 1974. In 2006 that figure rose to 7 percent. Of the one million students studied in Texas, nearly 60 percent were suspended or expelled at least once between seventh and twelfth grade, and 15 percent received 11 or more suspensions or expulsions during that same period (Council of State Governments, 2011: x, 5, 36).Texas Appleseed conservatively estimates that more than 275,000 non-traffic tickets are issued to juveniles as young as six in Texas each year, 120,000 of those for truancy (2010c: 1, 18, 76). One municipal court judge in Houston estimates that he sees approximately 150 juvenile ticketing cases per day during the school year (St. George, 2011).

Most disciplinary actions occur at the discretion of school officials and are not the result of behaviors mandating discipline. Only 3 percent of the disciplinary actions reviewed in the Breaking Schools’ Rules study were for conduct mandating suspension or expulsion under Texas law, including, for example, use of a firearm on school grounds or sexual assault. All other disciplinary actions were discretionary and most commonly involved violations of a school’s code of conduct rather than criminal behavior (Council of State Governments, 2011: 38).

School to Prison Pipeline

Students who are suspended or expelled are more likely to repeat a grade or drop out of school, especially when disciplined repeatedly. Of the students disciplined at least once in the Breaking Schools’ Rules study, 31 percent repeated a grade at least one time and nearly 10 percent dropped out of school. Of the students disciplined 11 or more times, nearly 60 percent did not graduate from high school during the study period. By comparison, only 5 percent of the students not disciplined repeated a grade and only 2 percent dropped out (Council of State Governments, 2011: 55-58). Of the students disciplined at least once in the study, 31 percent repeated a grade at least one time and nearly 10 percent dropped out of school. Of the students disciplined 11 or more times, nearly 60 percent did not graduate from high school during the study period. By comparison, only 5 percent of the students not disciplined repeated a grade and only 2 percent dropped out (Council of State Governments, 2011: 55-58).

School discipline increases exposure to the justice system. Almost one quarter of students disciplined between seventh and twelfth grade, and nearly half of those disciplined 11 or more times, had contact with the juvenile justice system. In contrast, only 2 percent of non-disciplined students had contact with the juvenile justice system. The suspension or expulsion of a student for a discretionary school violation nearly tripled the likelihood of juvenile justice contact during the subsequent academic year (Council of State Governments, 2011: 66, 69, 70). Almost one quarter of students disciplined between seventh and twelfth grade, and nearly half of those disciplined 11 or more times, had contact with the juvenile justice system. In contrast, only 2 percent of non-disciplined students had contact with the juvenile justice system. The suspension or expulsion of a student for a discretionary school violation nearly tripled the likelihood of juvenile justice contact during the subsequent academic year (Council of State Governments, 2011: 66, 69, 70).

Of the students disciplined at least once in the study, 31 percent repeated a grade at least one time and nearly 10 percent dropped out of school. Of the students disciplined 11 or more times, nearly 60 percent did not graduate from high school during the study period. By comparison, only 5 percent of the students not disciplined repeated a grade and only 2 percent dropped out (Council of State Governments, 2011: 55-58).Almost one quarter of students disciplined between seventh and twelfth grade, and nearly half of those disciplined 11 or more times, had contact with the juvenile justice system. In contrast, only 2 percent of non-disciplined students had contact with the juvenile justice system. The suspension or expulsion of a student for a discretionary school violation nearly tripled the likelihood of juvenile justice contact during the subsequent academic year (Council of State Governments, 2011: 66, 69, 70).

Ticketing also leads to involvement in the justice system. Receipt of a ticket in Texas requires that the student appear with a parent in a municipal court or before a justice of the peace (Texas Appleseed, 2010c: 69). While the Texas legislature mandated that courts immediately issue a nondisclosure order upon the conviction of a child for a misdemeanor offense punishable by fine only, Texas Appleseed asserts that the nondisclosure law is not working in practice, leaving these misdemeanors on a student’s record (2010c: 5, 71).

Adolescents are more likely than adults to engage in risk-taking behavior and are less able to understand the consequences of that behavior because critical areas of the brain have not yet fully matured. As the brain develops, there is an increased ability to control reckless, high-risk behavior. Therefore, arrests drop off substantially after adolescence, and the vast majority of adolescents who commit a crime do not reoffend as adults (Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, 2006: 4, 7-9School to Prison Pipeline, 12, and 15). This research demonstrates a need to reconsider subjecting adolescents to adult consequences in our courts for minor misbehavior in the classroom.

School disciplinary policies disproportionately affect minority and special-education students. Though African-American students represented 14 percent of the Texas public-school population in 2008-09, they accounted for 33 percent of out-of-school suspensions, 24 percent of in-school suspensions, and 25 percent of all expulsions. White students represented 35 percent of the student population but accounted for only 18 percent of outof- school suspensions, 27 percent of in-school suspensions, and 21 percent of expulsions (Texas Appleseed, 2010a: 7; 2010b: 44).

While African-American, Hispanic, and white students were removed from school for mandatory disciplinary violations at rates comparable to their respective proportions of the school population, minority students were disciplined for discretionary violations and had contact with the juvenile justice system at an alarmingly disproportionate rate (Council of State Governments, 2011: 42, 67).

The same holds true for students who qualified for special-education services: nearly 75 percent were suspended or expelled at least once. But a student’s involvement in the disciplinary system varied depending on disability. While students with a physical disability, autism, or mental retardation were less likely to experience suspension or expulsion, students diagnosed with a learning disability or emotional disturbance had a 24 percent higher probability of being suspended or expelled for a discretionary disciplinary action (Council of State Governments, 2011: 49-53).

Minority and special-education students likewise received a disproportionate share of tickets—in some school districts more than double their representation in the student body (Texas Appleseed, 2010c: 6-7, 89, 95-96).

Resources are not available to help those who need it most. In 2008 only 18 percent of Texas children eligible to receive public mental-health services actually received them (Texas Appleseed, 2009: 3; 2010b: 64-65). And only 28 percent of Texas public schools employ a licensed mental-health professional (Texas Appleseed, 2010b: 64). But the problem is not limited to Texas: nationally, 50 percent of students with mental illness age 14 and older drop out of high school, and 73 percent of those who drop out are arrested within five years (Texas Appleseed, 2010b: 65).

Finding a Solution

These invaluable studies add important numbers to anecdotal evidence of needed reforms. Texas officials are confronting this troubling data head on. For the past several years, school and juvenile-justice officials, legislators, and the judiciary have been exploring ways to evaluate and revise the current system.

To bring light to the issue and the need for improvement in school disciplinary policies, I pled for action during my 2011 State of the Judiciary speech:

Charging kids with criminal offenses for low-level behavior issues exacerbates the problem. Among those suspended and expelled, minority and special education students are heavily over-represented. Of course, disruptive behavior must be addressed, but criminal records close doors to opportunities that less punitive intervention would keep open. Let us endeavor to give them a chance at life, before setting them on a path into the adult criminal justice system.

The Texas legislature took this message to heart. State Senator John Whitmire, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, agreed that Texas must address issues raised in my State of the Judiciary speech and by other advocates for juvenile-justice reform. In that regard, he and his colleagues made key changes to the law that specifically target issues identified in these studies. For example, the legislature eased the state’s “zero-tolerance” law by requiring school districts to consider mitigating circumstances, including self-defense, intent, disciplinary history, and a student’s disability, before making a disciplinary decision. The Texas legislature also repealed a statutory provision that allowed school districts to charge students with a Class C Misdemeanor for any code-of-conduct violation, eliminated “persistent misbehavior” as a reason for expulsion, eliminated ticketing of young students for nonviolent misbehavior and truancy, and reserved ticketing of older students as a last measures (Council of State Governments: 9). These efforts are in addition to those the Texas legislature has enacted to significantly reform the state’s juvenile-justice system. It created a unified juvenile-justice agency, pumped additional funds into community-based programs, and amended the law so that children convicted of misdemeanors are no longer sent to state lockups (New York Times, 2011).

Last fall, the Texas Judicial Council, the state judiciary’s bipartisan policymaking body, formed a Juvenile Justice Committee to tackle these issues. The council—composed of judges, legislators, and citizens—charged the committee with (1) assessing the impact of school discipline and school-based policing on referrals to the municipal, justice, and juvenile courts and (2) identifying judicial policies or initiatives that (a) work to reduce referrals without negatively impacting school safety, (b) limit recidivism, and (c) preserve judicial resources for students who are in need of judicial intervention. The committee met for the first time in February 2012.

At the local level, a growing number of Texas school districts have adopted Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports systems (Council of State Governments, 2011: 11). This is an evidence-based disciplinary model targeted at reducing disciplinary actions and dropout rates while improving academic performance by modeling and reinforcing positive student behaviors (Fowler and Rose, 2011). The Austin Independent School District says the program has “changed the schools,” and that while disciplinary referrals have gone down, attendance rates and academic performance have gone up (Smith and Auber, 2011). And in the Amarillo Independent School District in-school suspensions have significantly decreased since the program began three years ago.

School to Prison PipelineSimilarly, the Waco Independent School District has created a program aimed at reducing disciplinary actions and ticketing on middle- and high-school campuses. The program includes increasing the number of students trained to offer peer support and mediation services, offering additional training for teachers in classroom management, and establishing a Parent Education Diversion Program, which provides parents instruction and information on adolescent development, positive discipline, anger management, and community resources (Council of State Governments, 2011: 11).

In Williamson County, school officials are referring students with a low number of unexcused absences to the Neighborhood Conference Committee in lieu of sending the students to court. Youth who are referred to the committee meet with their parents and volunteers to evaluate the root of the truancy problem and develop a positive action plan, which may include community service, tutoring, mentoring, or referrals for support services. The program served over 230 students this past year (Osborn, 2012).

Bexar County created Children’s Crisis Intervention Training, a program that trains school district police officers on de-escalation techniques; mental, learning, and developmental disorders in children; substance abuse; and available community resources (Council of State Governments, 2011: 11). This program has succeeded, in part, due to the support of local judges and the Bexar County Judge’s Children’s Diversion Initiative.

Texas is not alone in its efforts to combat these issues. Last summer, United States Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launched the Supportive School Discipline Initiative to address the disciplinary policies and practices that push students out of school and into the justice system and support disciplinary practices that foster safe and productive

learning environments. Goals of the initiative include building consensus for action among federal, state, and local education and justice stakeholders; collaborating on necessary research and data collection; evaluating alternative disciplinary policies; and promoting awareness and knowledge about promising practices among state judicial and educational leadership (Department of Justice, 2011).

Other states have taken the initiative to combat these problems as well. For example, a Colorado task force drafted legislation seeking to ease zero-tolerance policies, limit the use of suspensions and expulsions, and provide mediation to limit police referrals. West Virginia’s Department of Education recently approved a new code of conduct creating more in-school options for addressing misbehavior. In Maine, legislators are considering a bill that would require school districts to establish a reentry plan for students before expelling them, develop positive disciplinary policies, and refer truant students to intervention teams. In Connecticut, the Juvenile Probation Department of Court Support Services is screening all police summonses to determine whether court intervention is necessary. And North Carolina adopted legislation requiring a revamp of school disciplinary policies, prohibiting zero tolerance policies, and giving school leaders discretion to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing long-term suspensions.

Chief justices and other leaders from around the country will address these issues at the upcoming National Judicial Leadership Summit on School-Justice Partnerships: Keeping Kids in School and out of Court, hosted by the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children. The summit will cultivate school-justice partnerships to promote practices and policies that promote safe, respectful, and supportive learning environments; hold students accountable for their behavior; reserve the use of punitive measures, such as suspension and arrest, for the most egregious cases; and address the disproportionate discipline of minority and special-education students.

Conclusion

The two Texas studies and our state’s efforts to combat these problems should encourage other jurisdictions to collect similar data on the effectiveness of their school disciplinary policies and begin collaborative discussions on systemic change. The Breaking Schools’ Rules study was possible, in part, due to bipartisan support from the state’s legislators, and the strong support of the state’s juvenile justice system leaders, the executive branch, and the judiciary. Similar studies in other states will require the same wide-based support to effect meaningful change.

No one system or entity is responsible for creating the current challenges, and no one system can solve these problems unilaterally. We as judicial leaders must collaborate with educators and other stakeholders to develop disciplinary systems that address misbehavior in our schools, promote good behavior, maintain the safety of our students, increase graduation rates, decrease students’ exposure to the court system, refer students to proper community and mental-health resources when needed, and apply consistently across schools and student bodies. Achieving these goals is imperative to keeping kids in the classroom and out of the courtroom.