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"Re-Directing the School to Prison Pipeline,"

by Daniel J. Losen July/August 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

In 1999, Christopher Edley, Co-Director of The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University (CRP), following Jesse Jackson’s bold defense of suspended students in Decatur, Illinois, told his staff that he had scheduled a meeting with Education Secretary Richard Riley and requested CRP to create a briefing document on racial disparities in school discipline for possible use during that meeting. CRP reviewed the literature and crunched some of the discipline data compiled by the Office For Civil Rights of the US Department of Education, along with data from the the US Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, as well as numerous other sources. We were able to use the empirical evidence we found to frame the issue that had come up in Decatur as a part of an egregious national trend toward increasingly harsh use of suspension, intensifying the disproportionate suspension of Black and Latino children from school.

Having worked very closely with Penda Hair and Judith Browne of the Advancement Project on a number of issues, we joined forces once more and in June of 2000 put together a Summit on Zero Tolerance that was co-sponsored with the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Coalition of Advocates for Students. The Summit keynote was delivered by Rev. Jackson, with participation by Jonathan Kozol and numerous civil rights leaders, together with parents, students, researchers and national education leaders and policymakers.

Together, the Summit participants resolved to keep the issue in the limelight and to continue the collaboration while bringing what strengths we each had to the issue. One immediate outgrowth from the Summit was a joint “Action Kit” we produced with the Advancement Project, consisting of advocacy guidance to combat discrimination in school discipline.

In May 2003, CRP convened researchers and advocates in a two-day School to Prison Pipeline Conference. CRP’s work commissioning new research for this conference typifies our role working to serve as a catalyst for producing the best research on a given topic and raising awareness of it, so that civil rights advocates and educational policymakers will have the best evidence at their disposal in formulating arguments and seeking remedies.

In this case, research presented at the conference combined prior research on high-stakes testing, special education and drop-outs with new information on issues ranging from racial disparities in alternative disciplinary schools and programs serving public school students removed from regular classrooms for school code violations, to the economic benefits of a host of intervention programs. That racial disparity in school discipline and achievement mirrors racially disproportionate minority confinement was readily apparent. Our work in this area has continued to evolve, with a focus on using research to inform our collaboration with leading advocates toward stimulating meaningful school and juvenile justice reforms.

In the fall of 2003, we published Deconstructing the School to Prison Pipeline. The book introduction provides empirical evidence supporting a conceptual overview of the pipeline, and the chapters that follow offer detailed analyses of selected aspects of the pipeline, including research outlining the economic benefits of promising interventions.

In October 2004, CRP convened a roundtable, co-sponsored by NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund (LDF), with advocates, researchers and policymakers from across the nation, concentrating on the pipeline issues as they arose in four states: Texas, California, North Carolina and Massachusetts. In addition to this work, in 2004 we conducted and disseminated new research revealing the desperately low graduation rates of Black, Latino and Native American students, especially males.

Our parallel research and advocacy efforts to highlight the drop-out crisis emphasize the need to report more accurate figures on graduation and drop-out rates, disaggregated by race, as well as the abject failure of states and the federal government to implement the accountability for improving graduation rates delineated in the No Child Left Behind Act. In drawing attention to this crisis we have increasingly emphasized the connection between the disproportionate number of students of color who attend “drop-out factories” (high schools where fewer than 60% of the entering freshmen graduate with a diploma) and the increased risk that drop-outs face of winding up in prison. For our 2004 national report, “Losing Our Future” (jointly released with The Urban Institute and Advocates for Children of New York), and subsequent reports on California (March 2005) and the South (April 2005), we teamed up with national scholars, including Robert Balfanz, Chris Swanson and Russell Rumberger. After detailing the deep racial dimensions of the crisis down to the district level, the report provides estimates of the millions upon millions of dollars in related lost wages and higher prison costs associated with dropping out of school. Many national and state news media, some in front-page stories, have used the data provided in our reports, disaggregated by race and gender.

Our current pipeline-focused initiative has two components. The first entails a collaborative effort with LDF, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Law & Social Policy, the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee and many others, finishing written guidance requested by roundtable attendees. This advice- and resource-filled document is to be released by December, and will contain legal background information on school and civil rights law, examples of promising or successful legal strategies, cites to relevant cases, statutes and regulations, and other types of advocacy recommendations specifically designed for advocates who are litigating in defense of youth on the prison track or are seeking reforms through impact litigation and/or state legislation. It will provide advocates with some substantive tools for reform in a user-friendly format so that ultimately we can foster effective practices, and better identify and prevent problems.

We are also continuing to develop the research base. Through our close work with civil rights advocates on the front lines, CRP, under the leadership of Director Gary Orfield (Professor Edley is now Dean of the University of California-Berkeley Law School), is better able to focus our efforts on those aspects of the problem that need a clearer knowledge base and research-driven recommendations for corrective action. Toward this goal, we are actively collaborating with Professor Charles Ogletree and his newly formed Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School (see Box, page 5), as well as with researchers and institutions across the nation.

The Houston Institute and CRP are developing a project that will map the School to Prison Pipeline in three states, beginning with Massachusetts. This project draws heavily on recent efforts by criminal justice researchers to map the neighborhoods that send large numbers of residents to prisons and jails. The data we plan to map will include graduation rates, disaggregated by race; grade retention rates and scores on state-wide assessments, especially in grades 9 and 10; suspension and expulsion rates; class size and staff-to-student ratios; teacher quality indicators; school finance data; level of racial isolation; truancy and other child welfare data; and much more, depending on availability.

By visually illustrating the high costs of incarcerating dense concentrations of minority youth in Massachusetts and at least two other states, this project can help convince lawmakers of the need to redirect funds earmarked for prisons and juvenile halls to improving schools and community services. Consulting with Barbara Kaban (Director of the Children’s Law Center in Lynn, Mass.), economists, judges, other researchers and education policymakers, we hope to collect, analyze and summarize the most salient data so that we will literally present a compelling picture of the problem and the potential solutions.

We will present what we learn through a series of community forums for direct service providers, educational and legal advocates, law enforcement officials, school officials and others engaged with youths from the neighborhoods we identify. These forums, led by Professor Ogletree and others at the Houston Institute, will focus on devising solutions and strategies that could include district- and school-level advocacy, legislation and litigation.

Minority youth are hemorrhaging from our middle and high schools in an increasingly hostile environment for racial equity. We believe our work, with continued resources and collaboration, will contribute to stopping the flow and reversing the course for generations to come.

Daniel J. Losen is a Senior Education Law and Policy Associate with The Civil Rights Project (CRP) and has served as a lecturer and clinical supervisor at Harvard Law School. Among his numerous publications dealing with racial inequality in public education are: "The Color of Inadequate School Resources: Challenging Racial Inequities That Contribute to Low Graduation Rates and High Risk for Incarceration" (Clearinghouse Review, 2005) and Deconstructing the School to Prison Pipeline, co-edited with Johanna Wald.

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