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

Author:Nance, Jason P.
Position:Abstract through II. Law Enforcement Officers in Schools, p. 919-952


Since the terrible shootings at Sandy' Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, lawmakers and school officials continue to deliberate over new laws and policies to keep students safe, including putting more police officers in schools. Yet these decisionmakers have not given enough attention to the potential negative consequences that such laws and policies may have, such as creating a pathway from school to prison for many students. Traditionally, only educators, not law enforcement, handled certain lower-level offenses that students committed, such as fighting or making threats without using a weapon. Drawing on recent restricted data from the US Department of Education, this Article presents an original empirical analysis revealing that a police officer's regular presence at a school is predictive of greater odds that school officials refer students to law enforcement for committing various offenses, including these lower-level offenses. This trend holds true even after controlling for: (1) state statutes that require schools to report certain incidents to law enforcement: (2) general levels of criminal activity and disorder that occur at schools; (3) neighborhood crime; and (4) other demographic variables. The consequences of involving students in the criminal justice system are severe, especially for students of color, and may negatively affect the trajectory of students' lives. Therefore, lawmakers and school officials should consider alternative methods to create safer learning environments.

TABLE OF CONTENTS INTRODUCTION I. THE RISE OF THE SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE A. Zero Tolerance Laws and Policies B. Federal and State Statutory Reporting Requirements C. Students ' Limited Constitutional Protections at School D. High-Stakes Testing Laws E. Academic Underachievement and the Mindset of Educators. II. LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICERS IN SCHOOLS III. THE IMPACT OF THESE LAWS, POLICIES, AND PRACTICES ON STUDENTS IV. THE EMPIRICAL STUDY A. The Data B. Dependent Variables C. Independent Variables D. Models and Empirical Methodology E. Results of the Empirical Analysis F. Limitations of the Empirical Study V. Discussion and Recommendations A. Discussion of Empirical Findings B. Recommendations CONCLUSION APPENDIX Although the phrase "school-to-prison pipeline" has become "part of the national lexicon," it has yet to enter the lexicon of our courts. ... It is no doubt correct that early and positive intervention by family and educators will best realign [a student's] errant behavior and most likely lead to a productive life. That should be the educational goal of our school system in dealing with [students]. It should be a societal goal. (1)


On September 18, 2007, Pleajhai Mervin, a sixteen-year-old student, dropped some birthday cake on the school cafeteria floor. (2) This seemingly small incident escalated quickly when Pleajhai and a security officer stationed at the high school became involved in a scuffle after Pleajhai failed to clean up the cake to the officer's satisfaction. (3) Another fourteen-year-old student who was recording the incident also became involved in the scuffle when that student refused to hand over his camera to the officer. (4) Then the fourteen-year-old student's older sister became involved in the scuffle when she tried to intervene and help her brother. (5) The police arrested all three students and booked them on suspicion of battery. (6)

In October of 2015, a teacher called a police officer into the classroom to handle a student who was using a cell phone against school rules. (7) Other students in the classroom captured what transpired next by video. (8) After the student refused to leave the classroom, the police officer violently grabbed the student by the neck, flipped the student and her desk to the floor, forcibly dragged her across the classroom, and then arrested her. (9)

Involving law enforcement in disciplinary issues that educators once handled on their own is becoming an increasingly common feature of our public school system. (10) The anecdotal evidence of police officers mishandling student disciplinary problems abounds. For example, police officers stationed at schools have arrested students for texting, passing gas in class, violating the school dress code, stealing two dollars from a classmate, bringing a cell phone to class, arriving late to school, or telling classmates waiting in the school lunch line that he would "get them" if they ate all of the potatoes. (11) To be clear, these mishandlings are not limited only to high school and middle school students. In 2005, police arrested a five-year-old girl after she threw a temper tantrum when her teacher ended a mathematical counting exercise involving jelly beans. (12) Then in 2007, police arrested six-year-old Desre'e Watson for throwing a temper tantrum in an elementary school. (13) The police had to place the handcuffs around Desre'e's biceps as they escorted her to the police station because her wrists were too small. (14)

Students' increased involvement with the justice system is part of a growing concern that many refer to as the "school-to-prison pipeline." (15) The term "school-to-prison pipeline" ("Pipeline") connotes the intersection of the K-12 public education system and law enforcement, and the trend of referring students directly to law enforcement for committing offenses at school or creating conditions that increase the probability of students eventually becoming incarcerated, such as suspending or expelling them. (16) Although some may believe that arresting or incarcerating students for violating school rules may "scare them straight," involving youth in the justice system normally does not achieve the desired reformative effect. (17) Rather, the negative consequences that often occur instead are quite severe. (18) Empirical studies demonstrate that arresting a student substantially reduces the odds that the student will graduate from high school, especially if that student appears in court. (19) It also decreases the odds that a student will succeed academically and have future stable employment opportunities. (20) Worse, it increases the likelihood of that student's future involvement in the criminal justice system. (21) The consequences associated with incarceration are even more severe. (22) Empirical research shows that incarcerating youth reinforces violent attitudes and behaviors; (23) limits future educational, housing, employment, and military opportunities; (24) deteriorates their mental health; (25) and increases the likelihood of their future involvement in the justice system. (26)

Furthermore, these negative trends do not impact all racial groups equally. Abundant empirical evidence demonstrates that students of color are disproportionately represented throughout every stage of the Pipeline. For example, school administrators and teachers discipline minority students more often and more severely than white students for committing similar offenses, (27) and children of color have higher arrest and conviction rates when they become involved with law enforcement and the justice system. (28)

These appalling trends certainly have not gone unnoticed, and there have been several calls for reform. For example, in March of 2012, prominent education and judicial leaders from around the country gathered at a conference to discuss ending the Pipeline. (29) That summit sparked several other gatherings. (30) The US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights ("OCR") and the US Department of Justice have conducted several compliance reviews...

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