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Excerpted From: Laura R. McNeal, A Call to Action: Zero Tolerance for the School-to-Prison Pipeline, 57 Idaho Law Review 663 (2021) (118 Footnotes) (Full Document)
For decades, we have witnessed the increased criminalization of our nation's youth, especially youth of color and students with disabilities, through the implementation of “zero tolerance” policies and overly harsh school disciplinary practices. Instead of promoting a safer school environment, these practices have blurred the lines between school discipline and school safety, pushing students out of school and into the juvenile justice system. However, an unexpected global pandemic drastically altered the school-to-prison pipeline as schools transformed from traditional in-person instruction to virtual learning. For many school districts, this seismic pedagogical shift safeguarded many students from the harsh school disciplinary procedures; essentially pausing the school-to-prison pipeline as administrators struggled to adapt to this new norm. A survey by the Annie E Casey Foundation revealed a 27% reduction in the adolescent detention population between March and May 2020. As school districts across the country experienced a significant reduction in juvenile grant referrals, many advocates for school disciplinary reform viewed the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to transform our punitive approach to school discipline to a more developmental restorative justice approach. However, those hopes were short lived as instances of overly harsh school disciplinary sanctions began to resurface. For instance, in Louisiana, a 4 grader was suspended for a plastic BB gun being visible during an online class. In another incident, a 12 year old boy with a learning disability was suspended for five days in Colorado Springs, for flashing an orange and blue toy gun with the wording “Zombie Hunter” written on the side during an online art class. In both instances, the students were African American, which exemplify the harmful pattern and practice of students of color receiving harsher disciplinary sanctions than their white counterparts. These instances coupled with the current national advocacy for addressing systemic inequalities augment the need for swift disciplinary reform to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Substantive reform of existing school disciplinary policies and practices will require systemic national strategies to establish a more equitable framework for addressing school safety and disciplinary issues.
This article offers a path toward dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline by petitioning the Biden Administration to expand the U.S. Department of Education to include an Office of School Discipline and Safety which will be solely responsible for addressing the school-to-prison pipeline and promoting school safety. The proposed solution will transform the current punitive model of discipline to a more holistic, restorative justice approach through the implementation of a multidisciplinary reform initiative called Every Child Matters, which will be administered by the proposed Office of School Discipline and Safety.
Part II will discuss the pervasive problem of the school-to-prison pipeline and the underlying causes.
Part III will critique the federal and state legal responses to addressing the racial disparities in school disciplinary policies.
Part IV will conclude with a proposal for expanding the U.S. Department of Education to include an Office of School Discipline and Safety and the adoption of a multidisciplinary policy initiative, called “Every Child Matters.” It is imperative that we dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and ensure that all schools provide developmentally appropriate responses to school disciplinary issues, as opposed to the current draconian school disciplinary practices. In closing, the Biden Administration is uniquely positioned to assert “zero tolerance” for the school-to-prison pipeline and end this barbaric practice through the adoption of a comprehensive disciplinary reform plan.
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The proposed creation of an Office of School Discipline and Safety in the U.S. Department of education to implement a multidisciplinary model to eliminate harmful discipline practices will transform the current punitive model of discipline to a more holistic, restorative justice approach. This comprehensive policy proposal provides a succinct blueprint on how the development of new policies and existing legal frameworks can be utilized more efficiently to ensure that students of color do not bear the brunt of disparate disciplinary policies. Furthermore, creating an Office of School Discipline and Safety, is the best approach to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline because it establishes an authoritative enforcement agency to oversee the recommended Every Child Matters Policy Initiative. Lastly, this proposal offers the best path toward substantive school discipline reform, because unlike previous reform initiatives, this proposal provides the opportunity to compel compliance with the establishment of an enforcement agency, the Office of Student Safety and Discipline that can utilize Title I funds as an enforcement tool. To date, the federal government has failed to provide a focused, comprehensive response to the school-to-prison pipeline. This proposed solution provides a meaningful path toward eradicating the school-to-prison pipeline so every student can learn in a nurturing supportive environment, as opposed to being subjected to punitive, racially biased school disciplinary systems.
In closing, the Biden Administration is uniquely positioned to assert “zero tolerance” for the school-to-prison pipeline and end this barbaric practice through the creation of an Office for School Discipline and Safety and the adoption of the proposed multidisciplinary policy initiatives. It is not a matter of whether we know how to stop the use of draconian discipline practices in our schools, but rather whether the Biden administration chooses to do so. Until then, students across the country will continue to be abused and victimized by the very institutions that should be protecting them at all costs.
Laura R. McNeal, Professor of Law and Law & Director of Online Education.
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