To Obtain Justice in the Judiciary, We Must Start with the Kids

By Francesca Scovino*

There is no doubt that the justice system as it stands is broken. Prisons currently serve as places not of rehabilitation, but rather of punishment, leading to high rates of recidivism. Many converging factors uphold the inequity of the justice system, namely issues of prejudice, housing, socioeconomic opportunity, and education. These obstacles make the task of establishing a fair justice system appear immensely daunting, but they are also responsible for the school-to-prison pipeline, a problem that, if addressed, may hold the key to a fairer judicial process. The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the pathway that has led to the increased tendency of children to be removed from schools and placed within the justice system. This phenomenon has developed because of a myriad of intersecting socioeconomic developments, though in large part due to an increase in harsh disciplinary policy and police presence on school grounds, and a decrease in school funding. These developments have led to children as early as pre-school age being forcibly removed from their learning environments (Flannery, 2015) and being exposed early on to the justice system. It is important to look at these tendencies and seek ways to resolve them because, as children grow older, these issues evolve into the deep-rooted problems faced currently in the adult justice system. Thus, to address the overall brokenness of the justice system, we must first tackle the increasing incarceration of children.

The alarming rates we see now of children being arrested on school grounds as a form of disciplinary action come as a direct result of the use of zero-tolerance policies. These policies center around the establishment of mandatory punishments for certain infractions. This was originally meant to target forms of misconduct that involved drugs and guns to display a no-nonsense attitude towards such infractions in hopes of deterring them altogether (Blitzman, 2021). However, these strict policies have now come to encompass many more school rules, including nonviolent ones and ones not criminal in nature. School districts now have policies that demand suspension or expulsion for violations as benign as tardiness and truancy (Winter, 2016). This expansion in violations that fall under zero-tolerance punishment has naturally skyrocketed the rates of suspensions and in-school arrests while also criminalizing adolescent behavior that, in a non-school setting, would not invite police intervention. Suspensions and expulsions interrupt and remove children from their learning environments, making it difficult for them to return to and keep up with their schoolwork. This translates later on to students dropping out before graduation and struggling to find employment (Flannery, 2015). This standardized method of exacting discipline also contributes to the deindividuation of students, particularly those who are at-risk and, thus, most susceptible to committing infractions. Deindividuation involves the loss of a sense of identity and unique self, which can promote the occurrence of violence (Wood, 2015). Zero-tolerance policies contribute to deindividuation by disregarding the particular circumstances that lead students to misbehave. This uniform treatment causes students to feel unseen and as though their struggles do not matter, which prevents troubled students from seeking and receiving help. Therein, schools must adapt their disciplinary policies to meet the needs of students in order to decrease the high rates of students being taken out of schools and placed in detention facilities.

Zero-tolerance policies contribute to deindividuation by disregarding the particular circumstances that lead students to misbehave. This uniform treatment causes students to feel unseen and as though their struggles do not matter, which prevents troubled students from seeking and receiving help.

Of course, it would be unrealistic and ineffective to simply do away with zero-tolerance policies across the board. The disciplinary policies of many schools are structured entirely around this framework making it so that a complete removal would leave schools with no guidelines to address misconduct. Instead, schools could look at transforming their systems from punitive to restorative. In a restorative model of disciplinary action, students who break rules are held accountable for their actions and the harm caused by them, with a focus on addressing the harm caused instead of punishing the wrongdoer. This method teaches students to reflect upon the damage their actions cause, fostering empathy and responsibility rather than the anger and shame that is often experienced when punitive measures are taken. Restorative practices serve as a form of conflict transformation, in which conflict is not simply mediated and moved on from as it would be in conflict resolution. Rather, the matter is addressed in a manner that works to identify the underlying issues that forged the problem and address those in order to prevent future incidents (Wood, 2015). This approach aids in perpetually lowering rates of student misconduct by attacking the root causes of defiant behavior which, in turn, works to improve the livelihoods and well-being of students.

Expectedly, another cause behind the rise of in-school arrests is the growing presence of police on school grounds. The presence of school resource officers has risen by thirty-eight percent from 1997 to 2007 (Elias, 2013) resulting in nearly half of all schools in America currently having a police presence (Blitzman, 2021) and contributing to the widespread criminalization of student misconduct. When police officers are placed on campuses, a cataclysmic shift occurs in the perceived experience of students while at school. Police presence for many individuals elicits sensations of danger and vulnerability, taking away from the explicit purpose of schools to be places that foster learning and creativity and that keep children safe. We can observe the natural consequence of this by looking at Abraham Maslow’s concept of the hierarchy of needs in which motivation and human behavior are dictated by the achievement of various levels of needs (Wood, 2015). The second-most essential needs, according to this model, are safety and security. Without the ability to feel safe and secure in one’s surroundings, one cannot advance towards achieving one’s full potential, or self-actualization. Therefore, in fostering an environment that feels unsafe and uncomfortable because of police presence, schools deter students from being able to learn, grow, and improve upon themselves. Moreover, once officers are placed in schools, disciplinary action grows to involve interventions by the school police more often. Schools with police presence were recorded to have arrest rates nearly five times greater than those in schools without (Blitzman, 2021). Thus, with police present, administrators tend to avoid alternative routes to discipline like counseling, more oftentimes opting instead to let police handle the matter. This is incredibly harmful as it exacerbates the amount of student misconduct that is handled through measures of the justice system and, thus, the number of children forced to encounter the criminal justice system from an early age. Police intervention should be seen as a last-resort option for cases of violent or criminal behavior, not simply as shortcuts for everyday instances of misbehavior.

Without the ability to feel safe and secure in one’s surroundings, one cannot advance towards achieving one’s full potential, or self-actualization. Therefore, in fostering an environment that feels unsafe and uncomfortable because of police presence, schools deter students from being able to learn, grow, and improve upon themselves.

Nonetheless, school police officers in and of themselves are not entirely harmful. Having police present at schools helps mitigate and protect against violent incidents. However, the overuse of police as a mechanism of disciplinary action must be remedied. Police present in schools must be equipped to handle the unique circumstances intrinsic to working with children, much like a narcotics or ATF department is highly trained to deal particularly with the nuances of their respective fields. Currently, there are no guidelines established nationwide regarding the training given to school resource officers, and only eleven states have passed legislation that regulates the required training needed for an officer to be placed to work on a school campus (Ryan et al., 2018). It is well-established that children experience various developmental stages throughout childhood and into adolescence. The justice system has acknowledged the different cognitive capacities between adults and children by establishing a distinct juvenile justice system separate from that of adults. Therein, police officers who service schools must be properly equipped to handle working with children, who are fundamentally different behaviorally from adults, by receiving training specific to this demographic. This way, officers can better understand the motivations and intentions behind children’s behaviors and, thus, respond more appropriately when students misbehave.

Moreover, as schools lose resources and funding, students are left with fewer and fewer opportunities available to them for guidance and counseling. As it stands, schools nationwide are poorly equipped to properly support the well-being and mental health of their student body. The caseload for school counselors can oftentimes surpass a thousand students (Elias, 2013), making it nearly impossible for students to receive individualized counsel and for counselors to provide devoted attention to each of their students. This also allows for students who are struggling to slip through the cracks, undetected until they commit some sort of disciplinary infraction. Limited resources tie the hands of school administrators, limiting the avenues they can take towards remediating student behavior which promotes the relocation of misbehaved children out of school and into the justice system. This also contributes to the use of zero-tolerance policies and the overall implementation of disciplinary practices that are not holistic, as administrations lack the time and resources to be able to cater disciplinary measures to the unique contexts of the students.

As it stands, schools nationwide are poorly equipped to properly support the well-being and mental health of their student body. The caseload for school counselors can oftentimes surpass a thousand students.

            Allocating more funding to schools and redistributing current funds to more beneficial resources would not only better address behavioral issues faced currently within schools but would also prevent such problems from arising in the first place. With more counselors and school psychologists, at-risk students can be identified and helped before their troubles lead to acts of misconduct. This would lower the incidence of misbehavior by working to resolve the inner conflicts within students that manifest into disobedience. With more resources, school administrators are also afforded the flexibility of discretion, allowing incidents to be handled case by case, student by student. This, however, requires an outpouring of public demand in order to come to fruition. The money will not come out of thin air, and lawmakers will not seek to repair a system that feeds the prison industrial complex without public outcry.

Overall, the school-to-prison pipeline poses a dangerous threat to children nationwide, as schools have become pathways to child incarceration. This is not only an injustice against children, but also just as much a threat to the well-being of our society as a whole. Incarceration often follows cycles across generations, much like poverty and educational opportunity. Thus, we must take charge in preventing children’s early encounters with the justice system because these experiences hold the power to completely alter the life trajectory of a child, and therefore, on a broader scale, this influences the trajectory our society will take. Looking forward, as we try to envision and work towards a more peaceful future, we must start at the beginning by working to resolve the determinants that thrust children into the criminal justice system. To create peace amongst adults, we must first ensure peace for our children.

References

Blitzman, J. (2021, October 12). Shutting down the school-to-prison pipeline. American Bar Association. https://www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/empowering-youth-at-risk/shutting-down-the-school-to-prison-pipeline/

Elias, M. (2013). The school-to-prison pipeline. Learning for Justice. https://www.learningforjustice.org/magazine/spring-2013/the-school-to-prison-pipeline

Flannery, M. E. (2015, January 5). The school-to-prison pipeline: Time to shut it down. neaToday. https://www.nea.org/nea-today/all-news-articles/school-prison-pipeline-time-shut-it-down

Ryan, J. B., Katsiyannis, A., Counts, J. M., & Shelnut, J. C. (2018). The Growing Concerns Regarding School Resource Officers. Sage Journals. https://doi.org/10.1177/1053451217702108

Winter, C. (2020, September 28). Amid evidence zero tolerance doesn’t work, schools reverse themselves. Spare the Rod | APM Reports. https://www.apmreports.org/episode/2016/08/25/reforming-school-discipline

Wood, H. (2015). Invitation to peace studies (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.

About the Author

Francesca Scovino is a student at Georgetown University pursuing a major in American Studies. She is interested in peace legislation and prison reform.

Join the Campaign & help us #SpreadPeaceEd!
Please send me emails:

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top