We must end the school-to-prison pipeline
Today’s guest author is Linda Kryvoruka
Linda Kryvoruka is a retired Nurse Anesthetist who was always interested in social justice issues relating to disadvantaged populations, victims of wars and genocide, and child advocacy, especially regarding school systems and their methods of enforcing behavior. Linda is an alumnus participating in the Transitioning Justice Lab at the Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution, with a special focus on carceral spaces and the school-to-prison pipeline. Linda is also now a volunteer with the Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint.
“Wednesday’s Child is full of woe.”Old English nursery rhyme
Woe is the child forced to attend school in Rutherford County, Tennessee. This month, Taylor Cruze, a fifth-grade teacher in this school district, was charged with 19 sex crime charges and indicted by a grand jury. She faces the following sex crime charges:
- Five counts of exploitation of a minor by electronic means (under age 13).
- Five counts of especially aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor.
- Three counts of solicitation of a minor/rape of a child.
- One count of sexual battery by an authority figure.
- Five counts of exploitation of a minor by electronic means.
All of this happened at John Coleman Elementary School, where she was suspended without pay on May 2, 2022, pending investigation by law enforcement and Rutherford County Schools, who say they are cooperating fully with the investigation. Cruze submitted her resignation and had her plea hearing on September 28, 2022. (WZTV-Nashville)
You may wonder how this could happen and where were the adults in charge. Rutherford County is a county where nothing happens to the adults in charge. Judge Donna Davenport is in charge of a juvenile justice system in Rutherford County with an overwhelming history of jailing children, especially minority Black, brown, and Latino children. Her zero-tolerance policies have brought young children to holding cells for even witnessing a fight. Together with police and other accomplices, children are arrested at schools and placed in the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center, a two tier-ed jail for children with dozens of surveillance cameras, 48 cells, and 64 beds. The ‘filter’ system, which this judge and her jailer employ, determines which children to hold. Among cases referred to juvenile court, the Tennessee statewide average was 5%; in Rutherford County, it is an alarming 48%, the largest of any jurisdiction. Children are grabbed from their parents, on school grounds, or in their homes and placed in the back of a police car.
There is nothing a principal can do to protect the students once an incident has occurred and a police officer is present.
Children are placed in handcuffs, screaming and crying while parents watch helplessly. In some cases, all for witnessing a fight outside of school. A video on YouTube showed two small boys, 5 and 6 years old, throwing feeble punches at a larger boy as he walked away while other kids tagged along. This event happened on Friday, April 15, 2016, at Hobgood Elementary School in Murfreesboro, Tenn, Rutherford County. The scuffle took place off school grounds, and the police became involved because of that video. Everyone was rounded up, the kids involved and the kids that witnessed the scene. In total, 11 children were arrested over the video. The news outlets picked up the story, which inspired public outrage, yet the judge in charge did not relent, claiming it is the state of youth today, and they must learn to behave, regardless of whether the punishment fits the crime. Davenport believes that children need consequences, no matter how outrageous.
In 2017, Rutherford County violated federal law 191 times by keeping kids locked up too long. By Tennessee Law, children held for such minor acts as truancy were to appear before a judge within 24 hours and then be released no more than a day after that. However, this judge would extend the sentence to 2 to 10 days in jail for cursing at her or someone else. Yet, unchecked and unopposed, Davenport continues to reign over the fates of these children as a juvenile court judge.
Many children, once jailed, are placed in solitary, perhaps the worst consequence of being jailed. In April 2016, days after the Hobgood arrests, Judge Davenport approved a request to isolate a teen with developmental disabilities indefinitely. Jailers confined a 15-year-old to his cell for 23 hours a day while denying him music, books, or magazines, except for a Bible. Despite President Obama banning solitary confinement in Federal prisons for kids due to “devasting, lasting psychological consequences, Rutherford County allowed isolation in eight ascending categories, calling it “crucial” that kids understand consequences. Level 1 was for 12 hours; Level 8 was indefinite.
In a class action lawsuit, Rutherford County was permanently banned from punishing kids with solitary. In settling, the county did not admit to any wrongdoing. After the class action suit, including all 11 children who were arrested, in 2017, a federal judge ordered the county to stop using its filter system, saying that it departs drastically from ordinary standards.
Illegal detention stated the judge, “subjects the children of Rutherford County to irreparable harm every day.”
How did Rutherford County get away with illegally jailing kids for so long? No inspector flagged the filter process. The state of Tennessee’s failure to oversee the process is colossal. Inadequate inspections and data are inconsistent across the state. Yet, the budget continues to grow for this county’s housing and juvenile detention centers, allowing this system to continue. Does it continue? Yes, because the people in charge, the judge, the jailer, and the police, all believe the system works; in fact, Judge Davenport got a raise and a budget increase.
The school-to-prison pipeline exist for the rest of the country despite local, state, and national efforts. Why? Inadequate funding and resources for schools, harsh zero-tolerance policies, and police presence in public schools continue to create school environments in which poor and minority students have little chance of succeeding. Fatherless homes, single moms working more than one job, and poverty have increased the number of minority children left alone to fend for themselves, with a lack of strong role models to guide them. In an era of school shootings and other violent behaviors at school, public schools have increased security in the name of protecting students and staff.
The addition of armed school resource officers, surveillance cameras, and zero tolerance policies have substantially increased the number of student suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests.
According to the ACLU, on average, 250 preschoolers are suspended each day of the school year: nearly three times the rate of older students. It is time to address the punitive culture in educational spaces and the lack of mental health care for students and look at alternative approaches that teach rather than punish. Children should be educated, not incarcerated. We must challenge the systems that feed the school-to-prison pipeline, not encourage it. Private prisons and detention centers, such as Rutherford County, Tennessee, get paid to house and detain students all over the surrounding counties when beds are available, and the state pays for them. Imagine a bed and breakfast for juvenile felons!
The ACLU has identified five primary factors in the development of today’s police state schools that stream children into the courts and jails:
- Lack of funding and resources: Many behavior problems arise when students are disengaged and do not have the support services needed to succeed. Lack of textbooks, inexperienced teachers, and lack of mental health counseling and special education services all contribute to delinquency and high dropout rates. Many students have fallen way behind with COVID school closings and have not had someone at home to help them with schooling. There is a severe shortage of teachers, and many teachers have refused to return to classrooms since the COVID pandemic of 2020.
- Alternative schools: In some public school districts, troubled youths who are disciplined are remanded to alternative schools, many of that are run by private, for-profit corporations that are not subject to state and federal guidelines. Consequently, when students are returned to their regular school environment, they are entirely unprepared to keep up. In some school districts, students expelled or suspended have NO RIGHT TO ANY EDUCATIONAL SERVICES WHATSOEVER, per school district policy. (Chen, 2020).
- Zero tolerance policies: From preschool to grade 12, these policies establish automatic punishment for infractions regardless of the circumstances. Children have been arrested for having scissors in their backpacks for their art class or an over-the-counter medication such as a cough drop or allergy medication. These policies deny a student’s right to due process after accusation, particularly for students of color or those with special needs.
- Police in the schools: Since 1997, the number of armed school resource officers has risen by 38%. (Chen,2020). As a result, children committing the slightest infraction, such as disrupting the classroom, can be arrested. Where is common sense? How can we protect our neurodivergent children who need to move around or make sounds when they feel uncomfortable or threatened?
- Juvenile court and detention: Students that have been removed from school due to zero-tolerance policies land themselves in court proceedings or juvenile detention for even minor infractions. Once there, it is extremely difficult for a student to reverse the trend, fix his reputation, and re-enter school. Once a juvenile has a record, getting a job, further schooling, or joining the military is very difficult. It is hard to get a second chance. One must wonder if they are now making smaller handcuffs to fit preschoolers.
These events have become commonplace, and we must question the outsourcing of disciplinary duties to the local police as parents.
As parents, we should work with school administrators, teachers, and school board members to ensure the safety of all students if we are to stop this criminalization of our children.
Who is in the pipeline? According to 2009 statistics, 70% of student arrests are Black or Latino. 40% of students expelled each year are Black, with Black students three times more likely to be suspended than white students for the same infraction. Data from the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights shows that disabled students face similar hardships. Children with a disability are twice as likely to be suspended than a student without a disability. Although disabled children represent just 12% of the student population, they account for 25% of law enforcement referrals and arrests. Disabled students (neurodivergent) represent 80% of all physically restrained students and 77% of all students restrained and placed in seclusion, even though they comprise just 12% of the total student population.
Students labeled with oppositional defiant disorder, ADHD, ADD, or those on the autism spectrum, often find that their reputation for being disruptive follows them from grade to grade and year to year. This perception leaves them with the stress of trying to function in a system that is stacked against them. These children dread going to school and facing a community that does not want them. With the loss of in-school learning associated with the COVID pandemic, kids have missed opportunities to socialize and keep up with the missed learning possibilities.
In 2014, the Departments of Justice and Education issued updated recommendations with greater emphasis on providing adequate training for school personnel in classroom management and conflict resolution strategies, as well as devising ways for engaging students and parents in improving the school climate. These new recommendations specify that school stakeholders need to:
- Understand that school personnel, not the police, are responsible for handling the day-to-day discipline of students.
- Clearly define the roles of school resource officers.
- Assist resource officers in developing communication with students and parents by providing them opportunities for positive engagement.
We must keep children off the streets, out of jail, and get them back in the classroom. School is supposed to be the safest place that a child can be. We need to decrease any chance of a child not remaining in school by eliminating suspensions and expulsions. Students forced out of the school environment, when left to their own devices, can become involved in dangerous behaviors or become a victim of violence themselves. Children suspended or expelled are less likely to graduate high school, diminishing their chances of employment and the opportunity to move out of poverty. Sadly, those children who are most at risk, including minorities, poor children, and those with disabilities- need the safety of schools the most, yet they are the ones most removed due to the zero tolerance policies. Rather than learning from mistakes, students are penalized for them.
In today’s climate, schools are quick to judge a student’s behavior without understanding the root causes of it.
With all the development in brain science, we now know that the first three years of life are crucial for brain development, and the brain is affected by the toxic stress surrounding the child. Even in utero, the developing fetus is responsive to its biological and external environment. Students brains are in the process of continual development and are not fully developed until the individual is 25 years of age or older. Therefore, the decision-making and executive functioning skills required for impulse control, decision-making, problem-solving, and accepting the consequences of one’s actions are not fully formed for our students. Thus, disabilities and neurodiverse behaviors are met with discipline rather than understanding, punishment instead of accommodation. Inexperienced, untrained teachers often escalate minor behaviors instead of responding to students with patience and compassion. A dysregulated child and a dysfunctional teacher are a bad mix. Just look at what happens in Rutherford County.
Dukes ,K. August 18, 2022, We know school suspensions and expulsions are bad for preschool students. What are some alternatives? https://www.ednc.org/author/katie-dukes/
Siner, Emily, WPLN News and Sarah Blustain, ACLU At Liberty podcasts , Susan Carroll of ProPublica. https://www.propublica.org/people/alex-mierjeski