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Failing the Young

The School-to-Prison Highway


Shades of the prison house begin to close —Upon the growing boy. . . .—William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality”

in Wordsworth’s celebrated ode, the “prison house” is more metaphoric than literal, referring to the expectations, the harsh realities, and the dogmas of the adult world that so often crush or confine youthful hope and imagination. Sadly, in contemporary American society, the prison house is becoming all too literal a fate for increasing numbers of adolescents, who end up incarcerated before they have even reached adulthood. Most have either dropped out or been expelled from school. According to a 2005 report by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, only 12% of former juvenile prison inmates ever graduated from high school or received a GED.
In 2011, the citywide high school graduation rate for the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) was 58%, meaning that roughly 42% of students who should have graduated either dropped out or were expelled. This grim statistic is not one from which we can detach ourselves. As Daniel J. Schmidt, president and CEO of public television WTTW, has put it, “The staggering number of students dropping out affects us all, socially, economically, and competitively (quoted on WTTW by Yasmin Rammohan, November 7, 2011).”
    Why are so many students—in Chicago and other cities—leaving high school prematurely? One major contributing factor is the zero tolerance approach to discipline that is currently in place in many urban areas. Designed to control dangerous behaviors in the schools, zero tolerance policies sprang up during the early 1990s in the hope that they would make schools safer, more productive places. Students guilty of infringements typically receive out-of-school suspensions ranging from 3-10 days, with more serious and repeated offenses resulting in expulsion. Unfortunately, zero tolerance policies generally give schools no wiggle room, and students sometimes end up suspended for relatively innocuous reasons, such as having cell phones in school without permission or forgetting to bring their school IDs.
Eve Rips, an attorney working as a fellow on suspension-expulsion issues for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a recent interview that in the harshest of Chicago’s charter schools, “Cutting one class can mean a 5-day suspension and ‘disrespect’ can mean 10 days out of school.” When students miss multiple days of classes, it is very hard to catch up. Because of this, according to the Illinois Board of Education in 2011, suspended students in CPS are three times more likely to drop out by 10th grade than their peers who have never been suspended.
Another factor in urban dropout rates is the high-stakes testing currently fashionable that rewards educators and schools for eliminating low-performing students. (Think No Child Left Behind.) The ACLU, among other agencies, is critical of this approach to driving out students who may be most in need of further education. In an indictment of both high-stakes testing and zero tolerance, the ACLU has made the additional point that “Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline (www.aclu.org/racial-justice/school-prison-pipeline).” In fact, according to the Department of Education, African-American students are over 3 ½ times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their peers who are white (Civil Rights Data Collection). The same data collection, as reported by Tania Lewin in a March 6, 2012 New York Times article, notes that 1 in 5 black boys, and 1 in 10 black girls received an out-of-school suspension for the 2009-2010 school year.
What then happens to the large number of students who drop out or are forced out of high school? The tragedy for them—and for all of us —is that a shocking number end up in the juvenile justice system, cogs in the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.” A website devoted to this issue, www.dropoutnation.net, pointed out on April 3 of this year that America spends roughly $5.7 billion annually incarcerating juveniles. Studies in Florida, New York, and Virginia have indicated that about 55% of those juveniles will subsequently be rearrested, while 56% of juvenile offenders who have made previous court appearances will end up back in front of a judge before reaching age 18. In juvenile correction facilities, inmates, of course, consort only with other offenders, and some experience sexual assault. Only 51% of these young people report that they are receiving what they would call a “good” education while locked up (www.dropoutnation.net).
Not too surprisingly, in many cases, juvenile offenders have had trouble in school from a very early age. Deborah Stipek and Sarah Miles, researchers at Stanford University, determined in a 2006 study that “low literacy levels in the first grade are strong predictors of long-term disciplinary problems by third grade; essentially kids act out because they realize they are falling behind their peers, but are unable (or unwilling to) verbalize it (reported by www.dropoutnation.net).” These  literacy issues follow students on into high school: according to the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 48% of juvenile prisoners function academically below grade level.
Most school systems across the country are currently looking into how they can attack these problems. Enhanced literacy programs for elementary students are almost certainly a step in the right direction. So are alternatives to zero tolerance policies now in experimental stages in some high schools. The Dignity in Schools Model Code of Conduct is one such approach. It lays out two alternatives to harsh discipline: “restorative justice” practices and positive behavioral intervention and supports (PBIS) programs. Restorative practices, which stress cooperation, include such things as peer juries and peace circles. PBIS is a school-wide framework that focuses on early intervention for behavioral problems, and on a data-driven approach that works closely with students to make sure the consequences for their infractions help foster positive behavior in the future. In a new commitment to pursuing these alternative approaches, CPS has now officially abandoned its zero tolerance policy, though some individual charter schools still maintain this approach.
Attorney Eve Rips, commenting on the new approach in the Chicago schools, says, “CPS has been good about revising its student code of conduct to include restorative approaches, and it’s wonderful that the code of conduct makes it clear that suspensions and expulsions are punishments of last resort. But too often teachers and school administrators choose to ignore the restorative options in favor of the punitive ones, because choosing to go the restorative route is unfamiliar and often more work. Consequently, students are still being kicked out of school for remarkably minor offenses.”
In 1970, the U.S. had the world’s highest rate of high school and college graduation. Today, according to the organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we’ve slipped to No. 21 in high school completion and No. 15 in college completion. Only 7 out of 10 9th graders will get high school diplomas (reported by Henry Levin and Cecelia Rouse in The True Cost of High School Dropouts,” The New York Times, January 25, 2012). Numerous  politicians regularly assert that the cost of preventing 1.3 million students from dropping out of high school each year is prohibitive. It seems clear that for American society, the cost of failing to address this problem will ultimately be far greater.

Published: June 15, 2013
Issue: Summer 2013 Issue