Reforming the school-to-prison pipeline: How high school journalists can localize America’s biggest education story

A Florida student playfully throws a lollipop at his friend on the school bus — and gets dragged off to jail on a battery charge. A Maryland second-grader chews a breakfast pastry into a shape that’s believed to resemble a gun — and is suspended for “disrupting school.”

After decades of needless suspensions, expulsions and arrests that have derailed countless young lives, Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan took an extraordinary step this past week in calling for reform of “zero tolerance” disciplinary practices.

The involvement of Holder’s U.S. Justice Department is especially noteworthy. The DOJ is not normally in the school-reform business. But when disciplinary policies are proven to have a greatly disproportionate impact on minority students, those policies can amount to a civil-rights violation over which Justice has authority.

High school journalists will want to localize this national story for their audiences, and they should. Here are some trustworthy reference sources to help them get started.

(1) The Council of State Governments, a nonprofit research organization, has collected a wealth of research under its “School Discipline Consensus Project.” The most powerful is a 2011 study, “Breaking School Rules,” that tracked how Texas’ 3,900 high schools and middle schools apply discipline. It found that more than half of all students — 54 percent — experience at least one suspension between 7th and 12th grades, and that black students are 31 percent more likely to be suspended or expelled than are white or Latino students who commit comparable infractions.

(2) Investigative journalists at the Center for Public Integrity have exhaustively covered “the school-to-prison pipeline,” the overuse of discipline that increases the odds of a young person dropping out and getting involved in crime. Their research has documented that thousands of California students were issued tickets and fined for infractions as minor as tardiness — counterproductively, forcing them to miss even more school while appearing in court.

(3) Many state Departments of Education publish a “school climate” report annually that documents, by district, how many students are being disciplined and for what offense. For example, here is Virginia’s annual report for 2012. These reports provide fascinating details about how discipline is used. Many people believe that drugs and violence are the leading causes of removal from school. Not even close. The single most common reason for removal from school is defiance, classroom disruption or other verbal acting-out (nearly 26 percent of the long-term suspensions and 68 percent of short-term suspensions, according to Virginia’s report). If your district or state does not make these statistics easily findable online, consider filing an open-records request, which is a terrific learning experience itself.

(4) Want to know whether your school or district disproportionately suspends or expels minority students? The U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights collects and publishes that data — and much, much more demographic information about schools — in an easy-to-search database. The statistics unfortunately are several years old, but they still provide a revealing snapshot, and the school or district itself should be willing to provide more recent figures on request.

(5) While reformers call for reduced reliance on heavy-handed punitive sanctions, recent anti-bullying laws and regulations are tugging schools in the opposite direction. This authoritative June 2012 report funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, “Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right,” explains that “push-out” policies can create a toxic school climate unhealthy for everyone, even the bullying victims who are supposed to be benefited. In a perverse irony, those most likely to be targets of peer cruelty — LGBT students, minorities and the disabled — are also those most likely to face overzealous discipline. The report is especially credible because its authors include the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, which has been outspoken against school bullying but which also believes that turning schools into militarized dropout factories isn’t the answer.

The U.S. Department of Education’s library of resources on school discipline, including a video with Secretary Duncan’s Jan. 8, 2014, remarks about ending “zero tolerance,” is available here.