Ending the ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’ Senate Hearing is First of Its Kind

Allison R. Brown
December 14, 2012

Two years ago, in September 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced an historic partnership within the executive branch of government – the Department of Justice and the Department of Education were joining forces to focus civil rights policy and enforcement efforts on examining and eliminating the “school-to-prison pipeline.”  That partnership created a two-part national conference about the impact of student discipline on the pipeline and also created an inter-agency Supportive School Discipline Initiative.  This week, federal interest in ending the “school-to-prison pipeline” officially grew as the legislative branch opened its doors to discourse about the issue.

On Dec. 12, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, convened the first-ever Senate hearing on ending the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Durbin himself provided impassioned and numbers-driven introductory remarks at the hearing, defining the pipeline as a literal and figurative “gateway” out of school and into the criminal justice system that deprives children of their “fundamental right to education.” He lamented the desperate overreach of lawmakers and educators years ago to create zero tolerance policies that, rather than make schools safer, has redefined “rather normal behavior” as criminal activity so that instead of sending children to the principal’s office for misbehavior, students are removed from the educational environment entirely. “The costs are enormous.” And those that pay the most are students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBT youth. 

For many in the room, the statistics were familiar. The Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) was released by the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights in March of this year, and ever since, advocates have meticulously pored over the raw data contained in the CRDC, even committing data to memory for regular recitation in a collective clarion call for change. Congressman Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) reminded hearing participants what an important resource the CRDC is. Nationally, according to the CRDC, more than three million students were suspended from school at least once during the 2009-2010 school year. One in every six Black students was suspended from school at least once compared with one in every 20 white students. Black children were 18 percent of the student population and 3.5 times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled from school. Black students were 35 percent of students suspended at least once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once, and 39 percent of those expelled.  Black males with disabilities were the most suspended group. Seventy percent of the students arrested out of school or involved in school-based arrests were Black and Hispanic.

So, beyond the numbers and after the hearing, what happens next? This is the question that the 260 people who sat in the hearing room and the 150 more who sat and stood in the overflow room and the untold numbers more who watched the live webcast will be asking ... eventually.  For now, though, celebration. The hearing was a small victory, one more indication that the end is nigh for the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Victory because the witnesses who testified moved us all another step beyond defining the pipeline, beyond the same statistics. On Wednesday, we heard the very real stories of the pipeline and its effects on children and we heard viable solutions to stopping it.

In Rep. Davis’s (pictured) words, the United States is the “most imprisoned nation on the face of the earth.”  Our children are not exempt. Assistant Secretary of Education for Elementary and Secondary Education Deb Delisle testified that the most significant racial disparities in student discipline are not found in objective offense categories, such as carrying drugs, guns, or other weapons to school. Judith Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project forcefully debunked the myth that racial disparities in student discipline must mean that students of color act out more.  She said that oftentimes adults overreact when students of color are deemed to be in violation of a subjective category of offense such as disrespect. Edward Ward, a 20-year-old sophomore at DePaul University in Chicago and the man of the hour, delivered a first-person account of the pipeline. He was an honors student in high school, yet he felt like he was on a “constant state of alert” because of the intense police presence. He watched his classmates – some homeless, others caring for younger siblings – get suspended from school for days for minor infractions. He could “see the determination to get an education fade from [his] friends’ faces.” They were “under siege” in their own school. At the end of his testimony, Ward called for “solutions, not suspensions,” a regular rallying cry of the Dignity in Schools Campaign and fellow grass-roots organization the Advancement Project.

Witnesses provided solutions in the form of alternatives to exclusionary student discipline practices. Well-known student discipline programs such as School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and restorative justice were hailed by several of the witnesses as viable alternatives to kicking students out of school as punishment for misbehavior. Other alternatives, such as social-emotional learning and increased mental health counseling, also received attention. Congressman Davis proposed that charter schools should have their student discipline data reviewed as a part of their charter renewal process. Chief Judge Steven Teske of the Clayton County, Ga., juvenile court explained that his method of bringing together stakeholders (law enforcement officers, juvenile court judges, educators, parents and families, and students) has effectively reduced law enforcement referrals overall replacing handcuffs with individualized supports for students.

Wednesday’s hearing was an important next step in institutionalizing a federal agenda to stop the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Future discussions, including discussions about new or amended legislation to end the pipeline, must be frank about, among other things, (1) the need for police in schools but also the need for police equipment, such as metal detectors, in schools and the effect of the mere presence of such equipment on the psyche of students and staff in a school building; (2) the severe strain educators are under already to comply with federal and state law, and local regulations as well; (3) the need to re-frame research about black boys in particular to truly comprehend their success as well within reach; and (4) placing educational equity at the top of our national priority list for education in order to meet academic goals for all students.

It remains to be seen whether Congress will take steps to mandate the implementation of any of the solutions proposed during the hearing or whether anything will come of it at all from a legislative standpoint. But advocates are celebrating a victory nonetheless and will ride the momentum until, as Judge Teske testified, “the pipeline is dismantled.”

This article was originally published on the blog of the American Constitution Society and is reprinted here with permission.


Allison R. Brown is a civil rights attorney and President of Allison Brown Consulting (ABC).