Communities finding ways to combat school-to-prison pipeline

Collaborations between the judiciary, police, and community stakeholders are helping to ensure that schools are a safer place for students to learn without becoming a pathway to prison. 

In recent years, as communities have moved towards so-called “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies, the number of children arrested on school grounds has increased. In Philadelphia, for example, approximately 1,600 students were arrested in 2013 alone. Many of these arrests involved girls and boys who engaged in lunchroom fights, or were in possession of items such as scissors, box cutters or knives that are considered weapons under school disciplinary policies. As a result of these minor infractions, children were taken away in handcuffs, placed in a police car and received arrest records.

This practice has been called the school-to-prison pipeline. It serves as a funnel by which children who misbehave are removed from their classrooms and instead put into the justice system. Data released earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights shows that across the country, black and African American students are disproportionately affected by this issue. While they represent 16 percent of student enrollment in grades k-12, black and African American students make up 27 percent of the students who are referred to police for behaviors that occur on school grounds, and 31 percent of the students who are arrested for behaviors that take place at school.

The school-to-prison pipeline is something that police officers, prosecutors, school officials and public defenders have witnessed first-hand in our community, and have chosen to try to stop. As part of these efforts Philadelphia Deputy District Attorney George Mosee Jr., previously instituted a strong diversionary program. This initiative has kept the majority of our minor school-based cases from ever reaching a courtroom, but it did not prevent them from being arrested, taken to a police station and getting a juvenile arrest record. We are now in the process of implementing a Police School Diversionary Program which will help many of our children avoid system-involvement all together including the stigma and trauma of arrest.   

The police department and Philadelphia’s Department of Human Services (DHS), along with other partners such as the Public Defender’s Office, the School District of Philadelphia, the District Attorney’s Office, the Administrative Judge of Juvenile Court, and Juvenile Probation have all joined together to further reduce the number of children who are funneled from the playground to the jailhouse. Now, when police are called for a school-based offense, their records will be checked to ensure that they have had no prior involvement with law enforcement. If this is the case, and they are alleged to have engaged in minor behavior, such as a school fight, they will not be arrested.

Instead, these children and teens will meet initially with DHS where they, along with their parents, will learn about the many collateral consequences that can result from court involvement.  From there the student will be referred to one of six diversion programs with which DHS presently contracts. These programs will be able to provide substance abuse counselling and meet the other needs that may underlie the young person’s behaviors. Providers will also communicate with school resource officers who will be able to help address, for example, bullying which may have led a young person to carry a weapon, or get in a fight. We are hopeful that this new policy could reduce the number of children and teens who are arrested in Philadelphia’s schools by as much as 50 percent without reducing safety in schools. 

Other jurisdictions across the country are working to correct the school-to-prison pipeline as well. Judges in numerous jurisdictions, including those found in the Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s Positive Power: Exercising Judicial Leadership to Prevent Court Involvement and Incarceration of Non-Delinquent Youth are finding ways to divert youth from the court system. One of these judges, Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County, Ga., helped inspire our Police School Diversionary Program. Judge Teske established a collaboration in his own community that involved warnings and diversion for children accused of low-level offenses.

We hope that more communities will come together to act on this matter, as the problem of siphoning our nation’s children from their schools and into the justice system continues to be widespread. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 260,000 children and teens were referred to law enforcement by their schools during the 2011-2012 school year alone. Of these, 92,000 teens and children were arrested for their school-based behaviors. Much can, and in fact must, still be done to address this practice and ensure that schools are once again a pathway to education and brighter futures.

We call on communities to see what can be done in your own schools and to take steps locally to help ensure that children spend their days where they belong: in schools, not jails. 

Bethel is philadelphia's deputy police commissioner and is in charge of Patrol Operations for the Philadelphia Police Department, which he joined in 1986. He has been active in developing Philadelphia’s Juvenile Enforcement Team.  McKitten, ESQ. is the director of Juvenile Grants and Policy at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. She is a senior attorney in the Juvenile Unit of the association and is a member of the Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) Subcommittee of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.