Guest column: School-to-prison pipeline needs to be rerouted!

School to prison pipeline

Infographic on the school to prison pipeline from Community Coalition.

This writer has written several columns about the School –to-Prison (STP) pipeline, also called the Cradle-to-Jail. It has led to too many minority and poor students being  placed almost directly into detention, too often leading to prison.  The STP has been in our vocabulary for more than a decade yet the first federal hearing on it was conducted by Senator Richard Durbin, D-Ill., recently.

Among those testifying were representatives of The Southern Poverty Law Center, NAACP and ACLU, along with others.  Durbin told the subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee: “For many young people, our schools are increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system.”  With this hearing including the  Departments of Justice and Education a spotlight was finally shown on a situation that is too often viewed as only a local responsibility.

Matthew Cregor of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said: “With suspension a top predictor of dropout, we must confront this practice if we are ever to end the ‘dropout crises’ or the achievement gap.” Racial minorities and children with disabilities too often end up in the pipeline.

During the 2009-2010 school year, Black students had a 1 in 6 chance of suspension; American Indian students a 1 in 13 chance; Latino students 1in 14; white students, 1 in 20 and Asian students 1 in 50.  Those numbers increase if the racial disparity is combined with a disability.  About 1 in 4 black children with disabilities were suspended at least once compared with 1 in 11 white students.   One in 6 Indian children with disabilities end up in the pipeline. This is according to the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

Racial differences have actually widened since the early 1970s. Suspension is being used more frequently as a disciplinary tool. Even though removing children from school does not improve their behavior, it does increase the likelihood they will drop out and wind up behind bars.

SPLC has leaned that children are far more likely to be arrested at school than they were a generation ago. Zero-tolerance policies set one-size fits all punishments for even non-violent behavior, and students end up in the pipeline. The SPLC has filed lawsuits or civil rights complaints against districts with punitive disciplinary practices that discriminate in their impact.

But can anything be done about it? It is this writers’ belief that something must be done about it! We must look at state policies that lead to these discriminatory practices. Some of those policies include the charge of possession by ingestion, not even dealt with in the signed bill to reform our prisons.

That charge is used to a much greater extent against Native Americans than against whites in our terribly unjust court system. So who gets chosen for a urine test? It is primarily Native Americans, not whites. They have no drugs on them, but have they taken the drug or smoked the pot?  The charges too often lead to these Natives being placed in prison.

Remember, South Dakota is the only state that still has this charge. Four others learned quickly that it really doesn’t work. Why hasn’t this state?

This writer has not seen any Natives graduating from the drug court in Sturgis and few involved in the diversion programs here. The reason is the policies used to select them automatically discriminate in their impact against Natives. In interviewing a Native juvenile involved in the juvenile diversion program here, he was the only native in the group.

We must be able to do better than this. Let us please end the STP and keep our youth out of prison, instead of having a pipeline that takes them there.

–Hazel Bonner is a freelance writer who writes from her home and a member of the SD Peace & Justice Center. She may be reached electronically at; by snail mail at PO Box 3712, Rapid City, SD 57709-3712; or by phone at 605.342.6834 ext. 120.


About sdpeacejustice

The SD Peace & Justice Center connects a grassroots network of South Dakotans working for social justice and against violence and oppression.
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