A minor student's arrest record may be wiped clean at 18, but it may already have permanently blemished her chances of graduating high school and going on to college and funneled her into the school-to-prison pipeline, according to a new study at the University of Texas at Austin.
"Students may drop out of school or opt not to enter college following arrest because they assess, perhaps correctly, that the touted benefits of education are not likely to materialize given the stigma of a criminal record," said David S. Kirk, an associate sociology professor and co-author of the study, in a statement. "Though they might not even be conscious of it, teachers and advisers tend to think of arrested teens as 'problem students,' and focus more of their time on the students with promising futures while alienating problem students."
Kirk and co-author Robert J. Sampson, a social sciences professor at Harvard university in Cambridge, Mass., disentangled students' arrest history from the load of other dropout risk factors—poverty, a minority background, school disengagement, and so on. Using individual student longitudinal data from local and national education and criminal databases in Chicago, the researchers tracked cohorts of 12-year-olds and 15-year-olds from 1990 to 2005, cross-referencing enrollment and dropout data with student arrests between 1995 and 2001. (About 12 percent of students studied were arrested at least once.)
The study, to be published in the January 2013 issue of Sociology of Education, finds that school discipline policies that heavily favor out-of-school suspensions and expulsions disproportionately "push out" students after an arrest. Although in Chicago as in the rest of the country, a teenager's arrest is supposed to be under seal, school staff and administrators often find out about them—first and foremost because a quarter of the arrests of students in Chicago happened on campus. District rules also allow a student to be expelled from school for serious behavior problems off-campus, including arrests.
While 64 percent of Chicago students who were never arrested eventually earned a high school diploma, the graduation rate for students who had been arrested was only 26 percent. Similarly, only 16 percent of students with an arrest record eventually enrolled in a four-year colleges, compared with 35 percent of students with a diploma or GED who avoided the legal system. Arrested students were also more likely to have missed school, failed a grade, or been identified for special education, even though the researchers found little difference in the IQ of students arrested and not. In subsequent analyses, the researchers found that after arrest, students come back to campus with significantly worse support from friends, though they still felt attached to school.
Other characteristics being equal, a student who had been arrested was 22 percent more likely to drop out of school than his peers. For a frustrating look at how quickly things can spiral downhill, check out the American Civil Liberty Union's school-to-prison game.
These results add fuel to a growing push-back against exclusionary discipline in schools. Civil rights advocates charge that "zero tolerance" discipline policies more frequently lead to police involvement, particularly for students of color. For more on how schools are finding alternatives to these practices, check out my colleague Nirvi Shah's series Rethinking Discipline.