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On any given day, more than 53,000 youth in the United States are being held in a detention center or criminal justice facility, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a national nonprofit and non-partisan advocacy group.

Stuck in a school-to-prison pipeline, these youth are being funneled from the classroom to the courtroom to incarceration – a phenomenon that is disproportionately impacting students of color who come from economically disadvantaged families, suffer from learning and mental disabilities and languish in school systems that don’t provide sufficient resources or support, Rhode Island College Assistant Professor of Educational Studies Jeremy Benson said. 

“Over the last 40 years or so, we’ve seen ideas, practices and personnel from the criminal justice system permeate our educational system – primarily in poor and working class urban schools – with profoundly harmful effects on the educational trajectories and life chances of youth of color in particular,” said Benson, whose research centers on the political economy of urban education, critical race theory and educational inequality, policing and mass incarceration.

Both Benson and School of Social Work Professor Frederic Reamer said transformative efforts from both school and government leaders are required to disrupt this pipeline.  

“One of the challenges to disrupting the pipeline has to do with how school personnel respond to troubled children,” said Reamer, who co-authored “Rehabilitating Juvenile Justice” with the late Charles Shireman, a leading national scholar on juvenile delinquency. “Schools must respond better with social work services, intervention with families, financial resources and a shift in ideology.”

Benson said singling out one reason why the school-to-prison pipeline came to fruition is impossible. He said a belief in using prison and police as effective tools to address social issues, the expansion of a carceral state and even white supremacist ideologies have factored into the phenomenon.

“We can’t understand the school-to-prison pipeline without understanding the growth of what some scholars call ‘the carceral state,’ a punishment-oriented state or governing apparatus that withdraws or rolls back investment, job creation, housing stability and social supports in urban neighborhoods while rolling out a range of policies and practices for policing, controlling and imprisoning people,” Benson said. “So, we see working hand in hand the systemic impoverishment and destabilization of urban communities and the intensification of the policing and imprisonment of the folks who live in these communities.”

As a result, this carceral state emerged to absorb and manage a “surplus population” of unemployed, underemployed, low-wage and homeless people.

“These dynamics have worked their way into the schools because the boundaries between schools and neighborhoods are porous – the pipeline then is a symptom of this larger problem,” he said. “You can’t understand urban schools without working through the complex social forces impacting urban neighborhoods and families.”

Reamer, a former member of the Rhode Island Parole Board, said increased school suspensions, expulsions and zero tolerance policies are fueling the school-to-prison pipeline. Nationally, 3.3 million children are suspended each year. Children of color suffer harsher penalties – suspended at a rate three times greater than their white counterparts – for infractions such as disrespect, disruptive conduct and insubordination, according to research data from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

“Getting a kid out of school via suspension or expulsion is an easy fix,” Reamer said. “I consider it a short-term gain but a long-term loss. Once these students are suspended or expelled they may start spending time on the street and not working, and that’s when police tend to get involved.”

He added that he isn’t a fan of schools’ zero tolerance policies.

“I have grave concerns about policies that are imposed without discretion,” he said. “I understand that there are some behaviors that can’t be tolerated but I feel schools must be more nuanced in their responses to adolescent behavior. I’m not arguing leniency for leniency’s sake. I’m saying let’s be sensible and implement protocols supported by research.”

Protocols such as restorative justice, a system of criminal justice that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation, has proven to be beneficial in schools but require time, money and consistency, Reamer said.

​​​  ​Students participating in a restorative justic​e workshop
Through restorative justice, students who have been harmed convey the impact of such harm to the students responsible, who acknowledge the harm and take steps to correct their behavior.  

“In a deliberate and thoughtful way, restorative justice helps students cope with their challenges and avoid consequences with the police,” Reamer said. 

Benson agreed. “Teachers and staff need extensive training and professional development for restorative justice to work, and there needs to be buy-in,” he said. “That is, there must be honest conversations about why structural changes are being enacted within schools, and teachers and administrators have to agree that restorative justice is a better approach. There needs to be some level of agreement that sending kids to prison is bad, unacceptable – and that another way is possible and preferable.”

Benson also called for schools to reconsider staffing models.  

“A wide range of behaviors and incidents that used to be handled by school staff are increasingly handled by police or school resource officers,” he said. “As a result, students are arrested and have criminal records at young ages, spending more time in a variety of corrective facilities or under court supervision of some sort. Subsequently, this elevates the likelihood of students being imprisoned as adults.”

A police officer’s presence at a school is predictive of greater odds that school officials refer students to law enforcement for committing various low-level offenses, according to a 2016 analysis of U.S. Department of Education data by the Washington University Law Review. Nationally and locally, a Counselor not Cops movement is on the rise, seeking to bolster the number of counselors, social workers and other supports in schools, Benson said.

“This movement is largely driven by young people themselves who are saying: ‘Help us, don’t arrest us,”’ Benson said. “It’s up to us to listen and support these demands. Here in Rhode Island these efforts are being organized and led by youth organizations like PrYSM and the Providence Student Union.”

Ultimately, Reamer, who said he’s encountered many inmates whose history includes school suspensions and expulsions, called on education professionals “to view troubled students in the circumstances in which they live: through a behavioral health, as opposed to, a punitive lens.”

He cited cyberbullying, abuse and trauma as variables impacting behavioral health among troubled students. “One of the primary ways that kids react to such treatment is to lash out and get into fights or trouble at school,” Reamer said. “Perspective matters.” ​