Judiciary Panel Holds Hearing on Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline
Date:  12-14-2012

Powerful testimony urges legislators to stop the criminalization of school children
Some believe that the date 12-12-12 was auspicious. For those testifying before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on that date, there was hope that a bi-partisan effort would dismantle the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Chaired by Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), the witness list included noted juvenile justice reform advocates The honorable Michael DeWine, Attorney General for the State of Ohio, The Honorable Steven Teske, Chief Judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Georgia, Judith Brown Dianis, C0-director of the Advancement Project in Washington, D.C., Andrew Coulson, Director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, also in Washington, D.C., and Edward Ward, of Blocks Together located in Chicago, Illinois. The esteemed experts who testified at the hearing all had a common goal – working to make sure students do not end up in the criminal justice system and can stay in school until they graduate.

Part of the witnesses’ testimonies related to personal experiences they had with the “zero tolerance” policies enacted by schools in their areas. Schools facing problems such as truancy and disruptive behavior among students often followed the “tough on crime” model and created a “zero tolerance” policy. But, just as the tough-on-crime model and its component, the war on drugs, is now considered a dismal failure, the zero-tolerance policy is now viewed as a costly fiasco.

Schools with a zero-tolerance policy in place would suspend students for a variety of infractions, including minor ones such as wearing a hat in a classroom, coming to school late, or being absent without a “good” excuse. In many cases these students from Clayton County, Georgia would end up in the courtroom of Steven Teske, Chief Judge in the county’s juvenile justice system. Judge Teske, recognized that criminalizing the County’s school children was not the answer. Judge Teske also recognized that the majority of students that were sent to his court were black. Calling together members of agencies dealing with juveniles in Clayton County, the judge proposed putting an end to handcuffing and transporting to his court students who committed minor infractions. He also put in place a program where specially trained police officers were assigned to schools, not to arrest students, but to build a trusting relationship and to assess the needs of a student who might be misbehaving. The Judge supports police in schools, as a way to protect the students by being available to alert them to the services they need.

Edward Ward, on the other hand, had a deep mistrust of the police that patrolled the hallways of his school in violence-plagued Chicago. Now working with Blocks Together and Dignity in Our Schools, Ward told of mistrusting the police, and saw them not as sources of help, but as bullies who would handcuff and arrest students for the minor infractions. Once arrested, Ward stated, the students would forever be labeled as “troubled youth,” and would often end up in a juvenile detention facility. With raw emotion in his voice Ward spoke of a female student who was given detention in his school for coming to school late. School authorities did not bother to find out why she was late. The student had a younger sibling at home, and rather than leave the child alone and make it to school on time,she decided to wait until someone else came home to stay with the child. Ward, along with every other witness at the hearing, asserted that school authorities need to address the underlying issues that students live with, and to connect students and their families to agencies that can provide the services that are needed.

Aware of the violence in Chicago, Ward testified that by suspending or expelling students, and labeling them as troublemakers, school authorities are just sending young people into the street to become a part of the violent subculture that is seemingly entrenched in the city. Ward urged members of the subcommittee to support efforts to keep young people in school.

That plea was echoed by every person who testified,as each implored the committee not to give up on students by making young people believe that they are expendable.

When asked by Senator Durbin if, police were necessary on school, Judge Teske, replied that under Clayton County’s old zero-tolerance policy, a young female student who became extremely disruptive in a classroom would have automatically been handcuffed and hauled into his courtroom. But as a result of his effort to examine why a student engaged in disruptive behavior, the girl was taken to an office where she was gently engaged in a conversation by a police officer. After two hours the girl broke down and told the officer that she was repeatedly raped by her mother’s boyfriend. Her outburst was a result of the anger and pain of her sexual abuse. The girl was provided counseling, and her rapist was arrested. That, the judge said, was a different outcome from what the old policy would have provided, and how his initiative to train police officers who will be working in school to be more sensitive and better able to assess for signs of past trauma, or family violence, paid off.

In a statement released to the press, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), addressed the importance of a bi-partisan effort that will close the school-to-prison pipeline. Leahy commented,“The goals that my legislation has sought to achieve in the juvenile justice system are the same as those motivating efforts to reform our school discipline system: keeping our communities safe by reducing juvenile crime, advancing programs and policies that keep children out of the criminal justice system, and encouraging states to implement policies designed to steer those children who do enter the juvenile justice system back on track to become contributing members of society. We owe it to our young people, our families and our communities to end the school-to-prison pipeline and to reform the juvenile justice system. I hope we can join together in the next Congress to do so. “

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