By Peggy Nicholson
School is officially back in session, which for many signals an exciting time filled with new outfits, new teachers, and new schedules. Unfortunately, for students of color, a new school year can also be fraught with worry, as they enter an environment where they are more likely than their white peers to struggle academically, experience exclusionary school discipline, and be sent to court for minor misbehavior.
The racial disproportionalities and disparities that exist within our state’s education and juvenile justice systems are stark and troubling. They persist even as overall graduation rates go up and suspension rates go down. Yet, they all too often go unexamined and unaddressed. That is why the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition of Social Justice has released Racial Equity Report Cards intended to help communities better identify the racial inequity that pervades their youth-serving institutions. Using publicly available data, the Youth Justice Project has produced a Report Card for each of the state’s 115 school districts, as well as the state as a whole.
The School-to-Prison Pipeline
The policies and practices that push students out of school and into the court system are often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. This pipeline, also called the cradle-to-prison pipeline, disproportionately impacts youth of color, who are overrepresented at every entry point. The pipeline is a national crisis, but it is exceptionally damaging in North Carolina due to the fact that we are the only state that automatically sends all 16- and 17-year olds to the adult criminal system, with no opportunity to be held accountable in the more rehabilitative juvenile system.
The Report Cards concentrate on three potential entry points to the school-to-prison pipeline – academic achievement (or failure), school discipline, and court involvement – each of which play an important role in determining how successful a child will be. For example, students who are behind or failing academically are more likely to be truant, act out, and ultimately drop out of school. Similarly, students who are pushed out of school through suspension or referrals to court miss critical learning time and are less likely to earn their diploma. Instead, they are more likely to experience long-term negative outcomes such as chronic unemployment and incarceration in the adult criminal system. Further, research shows that exclusionary school discipline practices can not only cause life-long harm to students, they have no measurable positive impact on overall school safety.
Efforts to address the school-to-prison pipeline and the racial inequity within that pipeline are already underway in many school districts. For example, in May 2015, the Wake County Public School System announced a district-wide plan to eliminate racial disparities in discipline through efforts such as staff training and encouraging alternatives to exclusionary discipline. Similarly, Durham Public Schools recently revised its student code of conduct in an effort to reduce suspensions and promote in-school alternatives. As part of the new code’s implementation, district staff will receive racial equity training targeted at eliminating discipline disparities. In both districts, efforts to reduce suspensions and racial disparities came after community advocates filed federal complaints challenging their discriminatory discipline practices. Additionally, Durham County has instituted a successful diversion program for 16- and 17-year-olds charged with misdemeanors to keep them out of the adult criminal justice system.
The Racial Equity Report Cards are not intended as an attack on public schools or the juvenile justice system. These institutions are essential to ensuring our state produces caring, courageous, and critically-thinking citizens ready to participate in a democratic society. Further, while changes to these institutions are needed, that alone cannot fully address racial inequity given the structural racism that infects our society at every level. Thus, the Report Cards should not only be used to identify racial disproportionality within public education and juvenile justice, but also as a starting point for conversation about the institutional and structural reforms that must take place to ensure safety, fairness and equity for all children.
Some ways that local advocates and stakeholders can use the Report Cards to raise these issues in their own communities include:
Share! Share your community’s Report Card by posting it on social media, sending it to other interested community members or groups, and alerting local media. Send a copy to your local decision-makers such as the Superintendent and Board of Education members.
Organize! Organize a public forum to discuss racial inequity in your community’s public education and juvenile justice systems. At the forum, you can screen YJP’s short documentary on North Carolina’s School-to-Prison Pipeline and invite the Youth Justice Project to help present information. You can also use YJP’s documentary toolkit.
Reform! Convene a Racial Equity Stakeholder Group that includes a diversity of perspectives (students, parents, educators, court officials, police, child welfare, community activists, etc.) to discuss your community’s racial inequity and develop a plan for addressing them.
Engage with YJP! Stay updated by following Youth Justice Project on Facebook and Twitter. Let YJP know what’s going on in your community and how we can support on-the-ground efforts to address the school-to-prison pipeline and racial inequity in your district.
Each community is unique and therefore, uniquely positioned to lead the way in coming up with its own solutions to address the school-to-prison pipeline and the racial inequity within that pipeline. For additional support and resources, visit our Racial Equity Report Card page. Resources will be added throughout the year. Additionally, you can contact the Youth Justice Project directly with any questions about the Report Cards, to request a community presentation, or to brainstorm other ways to use the Report Cards effectively in your community.
Peggy Nicholson is Co-Director of the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.