Students, police, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Author:Nance, Jason P.
Position::III. The Impact of These Laws, Policies, and Practices on Students through Conclusion, with footnotes and appendix, p. 952-987

    One cannot measure with precision the combined effect of all of these laws, policies, and practices on students. Nevertheless, there is objective evidence indicating their significant negative influence. For example, the number of students suspended or expelled in secondary schools nationwide increased from one in thirteen in 1972-1973 to one in nine in 2009-2010. (164) Many of these suspensions and expulsions resulted from only trivial infractions of school rules or offenses, not from offenses that endangered the physical well-being of other students. (165)

    There is also evidence that school-based referrals to law enforcement have increased. (166) For example, in North Carolina, the number of school-based referrals increased by 10 percent from 2008 to 2013. (167) In an empirical study to compare referrals across multiple states, (168) researchers Michael Krezmien, Peter Leone, Mark Zablocki, and Craig Wells found that in four of the five states studied (Arizona, Hawaii, Missouri, and West Virginia), referrals from schools comprised a larger proportion of total referrals to the juvenile justice system in 2004 than in 1995. (169) That study also demonstrated that schools in Missouri, Hawaii, and Arizona referred greater proportions of their students in 2004 than in 1995. (170) The number of school-based arrests also increased in the Philadelphia Public School District (from 1,632 in 1999-2000 to 2,194 in 2002-2003); (171) Houston Independent School District (from 1,063 in 2001 to 4,002 in 2002); (172) Clayton County, Georgia (from 89 in the 1990s to 1,400 in 2004); (173) Miami-Dade County, Florida (a threefold increase from 1999 to 2001, and from 1,816 in 2001 to 2,566 in 2004); (174) and Lucas County, Ohio (from 1,237 in 2000 to 1,727 in 2002). (175) Similar to the increase of suspensions and expulsions, there is substantial evidence that the vast majority of these school-based referrals were for relatively minor offenses. (176)

    The negative consequences associated with incarcerating a youth, which is where the school-to-prison pipeline may ultimately lead, should not be underestimated. Empirical evidence demonstrates that incarcerating juveniles limits their future educational, housing, employment, and military opportunities. (177) It also negatively affects a youth's mental health, (178) reinforces violent attitudes and behavior, (179) and increases the odds of future involvement in the justice system. (180) As the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit recently observed, "[t]he criminal punishment of young schoolchildren leaves permanent scars and unresolved anger, and its far-reaching impact on the abilities of these children to lead future prosperous and productive lives should be a matter of grave concern for us all." (181)

    Furthermore, the economic costs of incarcerating students are staggering. The national average expense for detaining one juvenile per year is $148,767 (reaching as high as $352,663 in the state of New York). (182) And beyond the millions of dollars that government entities spend to incarcerate youth, some estimate that the long-term costs to our society of detaining youth (which include lost future earnings, recidivism, lost future tax revenue, and additional Medicare and Medicaid spending) range from $7.9 billion to $21.47 billion per year. (183)

    But even if the student is not convicted and incarcerated, an arrest still carries severe consequences. Sometimes schools will refuse to readmit arrested students. (184) If arrested students are readmitted, they often face emotional trauma, embarrassment, and stigma in their schools and among their classmates and teachers. (185) They may also face increased monitoring from teachers, school officials, and SROs. (186) These conditions often lead to lower standardized test scores, a higher likelihood that the student will drop out of school, and increased interaction with the justice system. (187) Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, criminologist Gary Sweeten found that, even after controlling for other relevant factors, a first-time arrest during high school almost doubles the odds that a student will drop out of school, and a court appearance associated with an arrest nearly quadruples those odds. (188) In another study involving inner-city students, most of whom lived in minority-dominated neighborhoods in Chicago, sociologist Paul Hirschfield found that those who were arrested in ninth or tenth grade were six to eight times more likely than students who were not arrested to drop out of high school. (189) These results held firm even after controlling for other demographic, behavioral, and academic variables. (190)

    One also should not underestimate the negative impact of suspending or expelling a student. Excluding a student from school, (191) even for a short time period, disrupts that student's educational experience and provides that student with more time and opportunities to engage in harmful or illegal activities. (192) Ample studies demonstrate that a suspended student is less likely to advance to the next grade level or enroll in college and is more likely to drop out, commit a crime, get arrested, and become incarcerated as an adult. (193)

    Another serious ramification of these laws, practices, and policies is their disproportionate impact on minority students. (194) Using a variety of measures, racial disparities relating to suspensions, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement, and school-based arrests have been documented using national-, state-, and local-level data at all school levels across all settings. (195) For example, the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights Data Collection demonstrates that although African-American students represented only 16% of the total number of students during the 2011-12 school year, they represented 32% of students receiving an in-school suspension; 33% of students receiving one out-of-school suspension; 42% of students receiving more than one out-of-school suspension; and 34% of students who were expelled. (196) Also during this period, African-American students accounted for 27% of the students who were referred to law enforcement, and 31% of students who received a school-based arrest. (197) Just as appalling (or perhaps more so), while African-Americans accounted for 18% of the preschool student population, they represented 48% of the preschool children who received more than one out-of-school suspension. (198) These disparities are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by minority students. (199) According to the Office for Civil Rights, "in our investigations we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students. In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem." (200)


    As in the past, many lawmakers, police departments, and school officials currently seek to put more SROs in schools despite the fact that research on the effectiveness of SRO programs is extremely limited. (201) But more importantly, these decisionmakers have not given enough attention to the potential negative consequences of bolstering SRO programs, including their potential to put more students on a pathway from school to prison. (202) This Article's empirical study measured the relationship between a police officer's regular presence at a school and the odds that school officials refer students to law enforcement for various offenses, including seemingly minor offenses. It differs from prior studies in at least two important ways. First, it analyzed restricted data from the 2009-2010 School Survey on Crime and Safety ("SSOCS"), the most recent, complete SSOCS dataset available on this topic. Second, it controlled for other important variables that prior studies did not, such as (1) state statutes that require schools to report certain incidents to law enforcement, and (2) general levels of criminal activity and disorder that occurred in schools during that school year, while still controlling for other important demographic variables and school characteristics. (203)

    1. The Data

      The data for the empirical analysis came from the School Survey on Crime and Safety for the 2009-2010 school year ("2009-2010 SSOCS") published by the US Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics ("NCES"). (204) The dataset is the restricted-access version, meaning that it contains sensitive, detailed information on school crime, such as the number of violent incidents that occurred on school grounds and the number of incidents that schools reported to law enforcement. (205)

      NCES used the 2007-2008 school year Common Core of Data Public Elementary/Secondary School Universe File ("CCD"), (206) which is the most complete list of public schools available, as a sampling frame (207) to select schools to participate in the study. (208) After subdividing the sample frame to ensure that subgroups of interest would be adequately represented, (209) NCES randomly selected 3,480 schools to participate in the study. (210) Of these public schools, 2,650 submitted usable questionnaires, which is a return rate of 76%. (211) NCES collected the data from February 24, 2010, to June 11, 2010. (212)

    2. Dependent Variables

      The 2009-2010 SSOCS restricted-use dataset provides a unique opportunity to analyze on a national scale the relationship between a police officer's weekly presence at school and the odds that school officials refer students to law enforcement for various offenses. The 2009-2010 SSOCS asked principals to record the total number of incidents that occurred at their school (213) during the 2009-2010 school year and the total number of incidents reported to law enforcement for the following offenses:

      * robbery ("taking things by force") with a weapon;

      * robbery ("taking...

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