American Graduate: Incarceration and Education

Dec 29, 2011

Louisiana incarcerates more people per capita than any other state. Ironically, schools contribute directly to this dubious distinction. The phrase, "school-to-prison pipeline," describes how schools convey students directly into the criminal justice system through "zero-tolerance" policies that criminalize mundane school infractions, which are called status offenses.

These policies lead to high suspension and expulsion rates. Dana Kaplan of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana explains our state of affairs.

"We have a suspension/expulsion rate in New Orleans schools that has historically been twenty times the national average and that's unacceptable."

However, principals have legal and parental obligations to remove drugs, violence, mischief and other impediments to create a solid academic environment. In doing so, school leaders often "sweat the little things," like uniform infractions, walking out of line and unsanctioned verbal communication. Multiple violations culminate into out-of-school suspensions.

Kirtrinika Clark, an 18-year-old senior at Sojourner Truth Academy, told me she was recently suspended for a similar infraction.

"We were sitting at the cafeteria table singing on Thursday and some of the girls were beating on the table to a church song and they told us to stop beating. Then that was it, that was all the instruction they gave us was to stop beating on the table. So we stop beating on the table, but they never once told us to stop singing, so we continue to sing. And then Friday we were still singing at the lunch table because that's like free time, that's like the only free time that we do get."

Kirtrinika protested the suspension through an ad hoc group called the Sojourner 10 and employed the help of advocates through the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana to no avail. School officials suspended Kirtrinika and others for the infractions.

The case is not in isolation. Multiple suspensions lead to expulsions citywide. However, schools cannot expel students without proper implementation of an intervention plan created with data generated through a system like Response to Intervention or (RTI). By law, school leaders must perform functional behavioral analyses and implement behavioral intervention plans.

These practices are effective, however, the volume of behavioral problems stretch school resources that budgets often strain to support. Harold Clay, Assistant Principal of Edna Carr High School explains.

"A lot of kids in their behaviors can change with early intervention but it takes a lot of time, a lot of resources," Clay said. "So, as you know, in schools you have teachers who are trying to teach, but in most cases you don't have enough people who can early-intervene and so that the education flows."

Without the resources to intervene appropriately, schools can end up with too many students with significant out-of-school time. Louisiana consequently has some of the highest expulsion rates in the country.

Jessica Williams, education reporter for the online investigative news site The Lens, wrote on the high suspension rates in New Orleans.

"So the article basically said that, despite the state positive behavior support program, which is a program designed to keep kids in school and to keep kids from being suspended; despite the statewide enaction of that program, kids are still being suspended at alarmingly high rates in Orleans Parish."

Williams found that sixty percent of students in one school receive some form of an out of school suspension.

Advocacy groups like JJPL are working diligently to reduce the number of status offenses. Once again, Dana Kaplan

"One thing that we're working on right now for instance is developing a memorandum of understanding with stakeholders from the Recovery School District, from Orleans Parish Juvenile Court, from the District Attorney's office and from community based organizations to try and reduce the number of referrals that come from the schools into the court system. Because if you look at all the cases going into Juvenile Court a significant number of them are coming from schools and about fifty percent of those are for infractions like fights or disorderly conduct that really could be dealt with at the school level before they ever enter the courts."

It's not that are schools are making the city unsafe. However, the disciplinary practices of suspension and expulsion feed a costly criminal justice system that doesn't get us closer to an educated citizenry.

Andre Perry is a researcher for the Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education.

This report is part of American Graduate: Let's Make It Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.