Matthew T. Mangino
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
October 10, 2014
As more and more school districts add police officers or armed security guards to their list of employees the number of students who are arrested as a form of discipline soars.
The most striking impact of school police officers so far, critics say, has been a surge in arrests or misdemeanor charges for essentially nonviolent behavior — including scuffles, truancy and cursing at teachers — that sends children into the criminal courts. The phenomenon has been referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.
“There is no evidence that placing officers in the schools improves safety,” Denise C. Gottfredson, a criminologist at the University of Maryland told the New York Times. “And it increases the number of minor behavior problems that are referred to the police, pushing kids into the criminal system.”
Melodee Hanes, of the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, describes the school-to-prison pipeline as “the pervasive use of court referrals as a means of disciplining kids in school."
More than 2 million students each year are suspended or expelled from school across the United States. Federal data, though limited, show that more than 240,000 students were referred to law enforcement.
The school-to-prison pipeline is being fueled by “zero-tolerance” policies that accelerate the involvement of the criminal justice system in routine school disciplinary practices. “Too often, so-called zero-tolerance policies, however well-intentioned they might be, make students feel unwelcome in their own schools; they disrupt the learning process,” U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said. “And they can have significant and lasting negative effects on the long-term well-being of our young people, increasing their likelihood of future contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
In 2013, Texas took action to stem the flow of the school-to-prison pipeline. The laws, known as Senate Bills 393 and 1114, barred police officers from writing tickets for misdemeanors that occur on school grounds, though traffic violations are exempt from the ban. Officers also cannot issue citations for school offenses such as causing disruptions in class or on a school bus.
Working as intended, the laws have fueled a larger-than-anticipated 83 percent decline in the number of Texas schoolchildren prosecuted in adult court for infractions such as disrupting a classroom, court figures show.
Almost 90,000 juvenile cases were kept out of adult court by the new laws, which were written to encourage schools to handle most behavior problems internally instead of relying on police or the courts. “We were expecting a drop. I don’t think we were expecting that significant a drop in the first year,” said David Slayton, director of the Texas Office of Court Administration.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His new book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010: The Crimes, Arrests, Trials, Appeals, Last Meals, Final Words and Executions of 46 Persons in the United States is now available from McFarland & Company publishers.
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