Shutting Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline

September 24, 2020

Once our kids are all back in school, so too will be the school resource officers, there to prevent violence yet unwittingly leaving many students feeling “scared and mistrusted,” according to new research in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

In “School Pathways to the Juvenile Justice System,” researchers Tammy Hughes, Tara Raines, and Celeste Malone report that 77 percent of school resource officers who participated in a 2014 study reported that they made an arrest to calm a student down while 55 percent said they arrested a student because a teacher wanted the student arrested.

“Not only does implicit bias impact teachers’ appraisal of behaviors, it also impacts the severity with which students of color are punished”

Indeed, schools in some cities, particularly under-resourced schools, have become the “primary referral source to juvenile court,” according to the research. 

In response to public backlash, many schools have eliminated criminal sanctions for student behaviors that do not threaten safety, such as talking back to teachers, repeated tardiness, cheating and cutting class.

Still extant is the “implicit bias” and resulting snap decisions that often subject “significantly more” black than white students to school discipline.

One study found preservice teachers were more likely to interpret a non-angry facial expression as angry for Black faces and not for White faces.

“Not only does implicit bias impact teachers’ appraisal of behaviors, it also impacts the severity with which students of color are punished,” according to the research.  Black students are more often labeled as troublemakers, sent to the office for discipline, given more days of detention and more likely to be suspended.

Hughes, Raines, and Malone offer policy recommendations “with caution” — as most are untested yet still follow best-practice guidelines — including training teachers on using neutral rather than emotionally charged language.

Rather than, “She engaged in thievery,” a teacher might say, “She took an extra cupcake without permission.”  Likewise, “He engaged in disorderly conduct” would become, “He talked back and used a sassy tone of voice.”

The researchers also note several schools are eliminating police officers while others are working with their communities and social service agencies to restrict court referrals from schools. They cite one judge in Georgia who has prohibited schools from referring students to police officers for “misdemeanor delinquent acts.”

Citing the “long-term personal consequences and societal costs” of sending students into the juvenile justice system, the researchers advocate creating policies that “support children and schools with evidence-based remedies.”