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Report calls for swift action to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline

RALEIGHA new report finds a convergence of laws, policies and practices move some students–many of whom are poor or children of color–out of mainstream learning environments and into the juvenile or adult criminal system, a phenomenon known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Once there, students are four times as likely to drop out of high school as their peers, and eight times as likely to end up in jail or prison.

From Push Out to Lock Up, North Carolina’s Accelerated School-to-Prison Pipeline reveals poorly funded schools, punitive discipline practices and inadequate education placements for suspended students push some North Carolina students out of classrooms and into courthouses often for minor misconduct causing them to lose critical academic ground and face long odds against graduation.

Advocates warn the school-to-prison pipeline siphons talent and potential from North Carolina’s education system and weakens the state’s ability to generate enough skilled workers to keep pace with mounting competitive pressures, both at home and abroad.

“Skilled workers are the basis of economic growth and North Carolina’s prosperity is inextricably linked to our education system,” said Deborah Bryan, president and CEO of Action for Children North Carolina, a statewide research and advocacy organization. “When students slip out of the educational mainstream and into juvenile or adult courts we all pay the consequences through lost opportunity, productivity and wages–costs that are entirely avoidable.”

Although the overall suspension rate has declined in recent years, troubling disparities persist. During the 2011-2012 school year, North Carolina public schools handed out more than 258,000 short-term suspensions, approximately three-fifths of which (146,639) were applied to Black students who comprise  just one-quarter (26 percent) of the student population. Previous analysis of statewide school discipline data shows Black students are more likely to receive short- or long-term suspensions for first-time infractions than their peers often for minor, discretionary offenses like disruptive behavior or dress code violations.

Disparities in school discipline are linked to gaps between and within groups throughout the education system. Black boys who receive 5.22 short-term suspensions for every 10 students enrolled graduate at a rate 9 percent lower than other boys and 15 percent lower than Black girls.

Although the school-to-prison pipeline is a national issue, North Carolina’s pipeline differs from the rest of the U.S. on one crucial point: while 48 other states handle most minors in the juvenile justice system, North Carolina treats all youth over the age of 15 as adults, without exception. As a result, students in North Carolina encounter a shorter, more accelerated pipeline than their peers across the country.

The report offers several recommendations to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline:

  • Raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction from 16 to 18 for youth who commit misdemeanor offenses;
  • Implement evidence-based reforms to ensure equitable treatment for all North Carolina students;
  • Improve data collection and reporting requirements to better inform and empower school administrators, parents and policymakers; and
  • Establish a legislative task force on school discipline practices.

Bryan notes that North Carolina has the infrastructure and the know-how to effectively address the school-to-prison pipeline, and several other states have already begun to made significant progress on this issue.

“Across the country, school districts and law enforcement are taking leadership on the school-to-prison pipeline by establishing diversion programs that empower schools to better manage minor student misbehavior without referrals to juvenile courts,” said Bryan.  “We have sound evidence that a systemic approach to student discipline which establishes clear behavioral expectations and reinforces appropriate social behavior pays dividends through reduced disciplinary issues, improved student achievement and higher school completion rates.”

From Push Out to Lock Up: North Carolina’s Accelerated School-to-Prison Pipeline is available online at

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