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More Districts Grapple With School-To-Prison Pipeline

From guest-blogger Alyssa Morones

Attorney General Eric Holder's remarks this month on improving the criminal justice system in the United States may have been national in scope, but when it comes to ending the school-to-prison-pipeline, the work may begin at the district level.

Holder's talk was a call to end the detrimental and cyclical nature of the justice system. A February report from the United States Sentencing Commission revealed that in recent years, black male offenders have received sentences that were close to 20 percent longer than white offenders that were convicted of similar crimes.

This statistic isn't unique to adults.

The causes and disproportionate effects of the school-to-prison pipeline in U.S. schools continue to pervade the national education dialogue. And policymakers, advocacy organizations, and school districts alike are facing the problem head-on in many communities.

A recent report from the Advocates for Children's Services found that Wake County's disciplinary measures propelled the school-to-prison pipeline, outlining the many policies that contribute to this pipeline and their disproportionate effects on minority students.

According to the report, 60 percent of all suspensions within the district fell on African-American students, who compose just 24.7 percent of the student population. In the district's alternative schools, 71.5 percent of students are African-American and 75 percent of students come from economically disadvantaged families.

"What we're hearing from this national dialogue is that punitive approaches disproportionately impact kids of color and poor kids of color," said Cami Anderson, the Superintendent of Newark's public schools, one of the communities that is taking steps now to reverse such trends, in an interview with Education Week. "That has been very negative for everyone."

This year, the Newark school system will implement its new restorative justice practices, hoping to end the school-to-prison pipeline in their schools.

Anderson said, "When young people get in trouble, that leads to intervention by school security officers, which often leads to intervention by the police, which leads to court involvement, which leads to poor life outcomes."

Newark was not unique in its use of zero-tolerance policies. Districts across the country continue to handle student infractions with suspension, expulsion, or with the help of law enforcement, inevitably funneling students into the pipeline.

"What we're seeing is that these policies don't work," said Anderson.

This year, Newark is taking steps to amend its disciplinary policy, geared toward zero tolerance, in favor of one focused on youth development.

Rather than strictly punitive measures, the new restorative justice and youth development practices are geared toward relationship-building and incident prevention, with the goal of reducing the hours that students spend out of the classroom and decreasing the number of arrests that occur because of school-based incidents.

"It's a mindset shift," said Anderson.

This shift isn't just occurring in Newark.

Restorative justice techniques are also popping up in broader school policies aimed at improving educational equity, such as the African American Male Initiative,which was developed by Guilford County schools, in Greensboro, N.C., to provide a more equitable education for its students by reducing suspensions and improving literacy among its male African American students.

The Duval County school district in Jacksonville, Fla., also recently announced its plan to reduce the number of suspensions and arrests of African-American students and to end the school-to-prison pipeline. The district will instead focus on cross-cultural efforts and increased community involvement.

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