Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice sued several agencies in Meridian, Miss., over the jailing of students for minor offenses, claiming that children are arrested in school and incarcerated for days without a hearing and regardless of the severity of the alleged offenses.
The case, still pending, describes a so-called "school-to-prison" pipeline. At 2 p.m. Eastern time today, lawmakers on Capitol Hill will hear ideas about how to keep schoolhouse infractions from turning students into juvenile delinquents, repeat offenders, high school dropouts, and eventually for some, lifelong criminals. The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, will hear from top education and juvenile justice officials as well as advocates, judges, and think-tank analysts about how to handle the issue. It will be led by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat.
"We're really excited about the hearing," said Jerri Katzerman, deputy legal director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. Her organization works on cases in a number of districts over the incarceration of students for school-based offenses that might otherwise never yield criminal charges. She's especially pleased that the hearing focuses on ending the practice, rather than just discussing the issue.
"We feel the school-to-prison pipeline has contributed to the resegregration of public education," particularly in the south, Katzerman said. "We have our public schools being emptied of African-American children. It's a traumatic experience: Often, kids we represent are there for minor misconduct. If it happened anywhere else it wouldn't be a criminal offense."
Data collected by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights from the 2009-10 school year shows that more than 70 percent of students involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement because of activities at school are black or Latino. The data covers most of the of public school children nationwide.
The students miss school, wind up in an alternative program as a transition from juvenile justice facilities back to regular public schools, and the cycle may quickly repeat itself.
"For a lot of youngsters, some alternative schools are good for some children, but a lot of them are a place where children learn to hone delinquent skills," she said.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that even though a minor student's arrest record may be wiped clean at 18, it may permanently blemish chances of graduating high school and going on to college and instead work as a funnel into the school-to-prison pipeline.
"It's not just schools pushing students out but the prison system pulling them in," Katzerman said.
Among scheduled speakers at today's hearing: Deborah Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education; Melodee Hanes, acting administrator for the office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice; Ohio Attorney General Michael DeWine; Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County, Ga., who has worked on reducing juvenile court proceedings in his region; Judith Browne, co-director of the Advancement Project, Andrew Colson, director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, and Edward Ward of Blocks Together in Chicago.
In a letter applauding the hearing, the National Center for Learning Disabilities noted that the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project has found that an estimated 13 percent of all students with disabilities were suspended nationally during the 2009-2010 school year.
"This is approximately twice the rate of their non-disabled peers," wrote James H. Wendorf, the organization's executive director, in a letter to Durbin. "For all students with disabilities, regardless of race, it was found that over 400 districts suspended 25 percent or more of these students. Black students with disabilities were most at risk for out-of-school suspension with an alarming 25 percent national average for all districts in the sample.
"As you know, the frequent use of out-of-school suspension results in increased dropout rates and heightened risk of youth winding up in the juvenile justice system. This hearing is necessary to ensure a full discussion about the need for policies that lower dropout rates and ensure more students with disabilities graduate from high school with a regular high school diploma."