Thursday, February 09, 2023

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B. From Pupils to Prisoners (of War)

Beyond the negative impact of bearing witness to such atrocities, those swept up in school-based offensives suffer further devastating injuries. Gone are the days where minor misbehaviors or schoolyard scuffles are met with reprimand or short-term disciplinary sanctions. Instead, seemingly inconsistent with the goal of leaving no child behind, such deviations now often result in arrest, expulsion, prosecution, and adjudication with official court sanctions. Given the modern merger of education and law enforcement functions, these processes can be remarkably swift, severe, and long lasting in their effects.

Despite the Supreme Court's decision in Goss v. Lopez, which requires a due process hearing before a school can deny a student educational services, schools often dispense with such hearings while the government prosecutes students for alleged school misconduct. When children are escorted out of schoolhouses in handcuffs and delivered to detention centers, they and their families are distracted by the immediate situation. An informal school hearing becomes the least of their concerns. Furthermore, school officials often encourage families to waive hearings without fully explaining their rights, or they send hearing notices that lack information or are missed in the chaos that follows an arrest. Even in the absence of these hearings, school officials may still decide to suspend a child for a year, sometimes longer.

Even those who seek to challenge disciplinary actions often find themselves victims of a complex system that has worked to collect evidence against them all while claiming to protect. For instance, many hearing officials rely on evidence that was obtained in violation of a child's constitutional rights and base decisions on hearsay information of wrongdoing. Such practices leave children and families feeling like the process they are afforded is a sham. They also all but ensure children are pushed out of schools and down the path of the prison pipeline.

Once removed from the school setting and ensnared by the juvenile justice system, children become even more at risk for failure. For instance, many youth who exhibit inappropriate behaviors at school are actually in need of mental health and other assistance, not punitive court punishments. Thus, the psychological and other needs of these students may go unmet, which sets them up for further difficulties as they enter adulthood. Even when children do not require mental health intervention, removal from the traditional school setting can undermine their ability to succeed and encourage rather than deter further misbehaviors. Arrest alone increases a child's chance of dropping out of school entirely. When such children become court involved, the likelihood of their receiving a diploma decreases even more dramatically.

Beyond formal practices that exclude children from school, schools have developed more informal and covert mechanisms to push out the least desirable youths. Here again, despite the constitutional mandate of a due process hearing prior to suspension or expulsion, many schools have begun simply transferring students who they perceive as a problem to alternative settings. Schools often make these unilateral transfers without a hearing and base their decisions upon generalized considerations relating to student behavior or performance. Claiming that such transfers are for the good of the individual child and larger school community, education officials send a very clear message that such students do not deserve to be educated with their peers. For instance, [i] n 2005-06 alone, Texas public schools made 62,981 discretionary referrals to [alternative education programs] compared to 27,093 state-mandated referrals for serious offenses. School officials often claim these moves do not constitute discipline or a deprivation of education. However, some alternative programs are taught out of trailers and other substandard facilities. In addition, many provide learning opportunities that are far inferior to those offered at even the poorest performing traditional schools. Instruction might be offered in the barest of essentials and by way of handouts or computerized programs.

In St. Louis, for instance, the city has contracted with an outside entity to serve as an alternative placement, but it provides only three hours of education per day to students. This permits the contractors to run multiple shifts and shuttle students in and out of the program all day long. With the first session held from only 7:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., students are largely left to their own devices for most of the day, but even during class sessions students are left on their own. Through our work at the Juvenile Justice Clinic, we have learned that teachers leave students at computers to teach themselves. These computer programs permit students to take tests over and over, without changing the content or order of multiple-choice questions, until they achieve a passing score. Indeed, our clinic recently brought a lawsuit to challenge unilateral transfers to such alternative placements and continues to encourage reform of such practices.

Not surprisingly, statistics demonstrate that poor and minority children are overwhelmingly impacted by such push-out strategies. Across the country, students of color are overrepresented in school disciplinary proceedings and related prosecutions. Black youth are three times as likely to be suspended and 50 percent more likely to drop out of school when compared to White youth. Similarly, children growing up in homes near or below the poverty level are more likely to be expelled than others. Beyond reducing their ability to receive a high school diploma, once referred to the juvenile justice system, they are more likely to be detained, adjudicated, and remain court-involved. Again, like children of war, poor and minority students in the United States suffer seriously reduced life chances.

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