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The school-to-prison pipeline in North Carolina Part I: What, why and when

By: 
Jason Langberg

Jason Langberg is a supervising attorney at Advocates for Children’s Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina. This blog post is the first part of a two-part primer on the school-to-prison prison in North Carolina.

WHAT is the school-to-prison pipeline (StPP)?

The StPP is a system of laws, policies, and practices that pushes students out of schools and toward the juvenile and criminal systems. Students are pushed into these systems directly and indirectly. Directly, students are arrested at school or referred to court for something that happened at school. Indirectly, they are suspended from or drop out of school, experience the negative effects of being out of school, and ultimately get arrested or referred to court.

WHY does the StPP exist?

The StPP exists for a variety of reasons, including:

Under-funding, which prevents schools from having the necessary resources to prevent misbehavior, intervene when misbehavior occurs, and provide more effective alternatives to punitive discipline. Public school funding in North Carolina ranks near the bottom of all states.

  • Overcrowding, which makes it more difficult for teachers and administrators to provide individualized attention, create a sense of community, and manage misbehavior.
  • Unaddressed academic failure, which causes students to lose motivation and incentive to follow school rules. During 2011-12, in North Carolina, 225,710 students in grades three through eight (32.5%) failed at least one end-of-grade (EOG) exam; 64,831 high school students (18.6%) failed at least one end-of-course (EOC) exam; and 19,246 students who entered high school four years earlier (17.5%) did not graduate on time.
  • Unmet special education needs, which can cause academic failure and behavior problems. During 2011-12, in North Carolina, only 33.8% of students with disabilities passed all of their EOG exams, compared to 72.5% of non-disabled students; and only 41.5% of students with disabilities passed all of their EOC exams, compared to 86.3% of non-disabled students. During 2012-13, only 62.3% of students with disabilities gradated high school on time (i.e., within four years of entering), compared to 84.8% of non-disabled students.
  • High-stakes testing, which diverts valuable resources, labels certain students as failures, creates perverse incentives to push out low-performing students, and drains the joy out of teaching and learning.
  • Suspension and expulsion, which cause academic problems (e.g., failure and retention), psychological problems (e.g., lower self-esteem and feelings of alienation and rejection), and behavioral problems (e.g., substance abuse and gang involvement). During 2011-12, public schools in North Carolina gave out: 258,197 short-term suspensions (i.e., out-of-school suspensions lasting one to 10 school days) to 134,522 students who missed a combined total of 704,878 school days; 1,609 long-term suspensions (i.e., out-of-school suspensions lasting 11 school days or more) to 1,581 students who missed a combined total of 86,629 school days; and 30 expulsions (i.e., indefinite removal) to 24 high school students, three middle school students, and three elementary school students. In juvenile court, the ramifications of the StPP are seen in the educational histories of youth committed to the state's youth develop centers (i.e., juvenile prisons). Juveniles committed to youth development centers had an average of 36 days of suspension in the year prior to their commitment.
  • Inadequate due process for students facing suspension, expulsion, and involuntary transfer to alternative schools and programs, which limits opportunities to expose biased and/or overzealous administrators, sends the wrong message about fairness to students and their families, and eliminates the possibility of procedural justice.
  • Corporal punishment, which can cause physical pain, psychological problems, worse academic outcomes, school disengagement, and damage to the learning environment. During 2011-12, 404 uses of corporal punishment were administered to 296 students.
  • Highly segregated, punitive, low-performing alternative schools and programs. For example, during 2011-12, at Lakeview Alternative School in Durham, only 6.5% of middle school students passed all of their EOG exams and only 27.5% of high school students passed all of their EOC exams. During the same year at Longview Alternative School in Raleigh, only 5.1% of middle school students passed all of their EOG exams and only 23.7% of high school students passed all of their EOC exams. Some districts, such as the Wake County Public School System, are also putting hundreds of high-needs students on online programs in which they do not have access to positive socialization, in-person teachers, support services, elective classes, extracurricular activities, or free or reduced price lunch.
  • School policing, which diverts valuable resources, damages the learning environment by creating an atmosphere of hostility and control, undermines the authority of teachers and administrators, and increases arrests and court referrals for minor misbehavior. At last count (2008-09), there were 849 law enforcement officers patrolling public schools on a full-time basis (called “school resource officers” or “SROs”), which was an increase of over 249% since 1996. Many school districts also contract with corporations to deploy private security guards. During 2011, 43% of all delinquency complaints (16,118) were school-based. To make matters worse, North Carolina is the only state that treats all 16- and 17-years olds as adults when they are charged with criminal offenses and then denies them the ability to appeal for return to the juvenile system.

Once students enter the juvenile and criminal systems, they face under-resourced public defense delivery and ineffective assistance of counsel, overburdened court counselors and probation officers, a lack of rehabilitative services, inhumane conditions and abuse in facilities, stigmatization, and long-lasting collateral consequences.

WHEN did the StPP start?

The phenomenon known as the StPP began to in the 1980s and 1990s on the heels of: a) “tough on crime” policies, “broken windows” theory of policing, and “three-strikes” laws; b) high profile school shootings; c) the media saturating the public with images of juvenile super-predators; d) No Child Left Behind; and e) the passage of zero tolerance school discipline laws and policies. Over the last two decades, the StPP has contributed to achievement gaps, a massive prison-industrial complex, the new Jim Crow, and cyclical or generational poverty.

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