By Christopher Zoukis
As the school-to-prison pipeline system continues to be under scrutiny, schools in the Los Angeles area are working to reduce this, armed with mounting evidence that harsh punishment for small offenses at an early age does not reduce crime rates, but makes it more likely that offenders to go to prison than to college.
Realizing this, school districts, such as Long Beach Unified, are moving towards restorative justice systems, reducing punishments such as suspensions and citations for truancy.
These more traditional punishments, including suspensions and informal removal from classrooms, further disadvantage these children and teens. These punishments cause them to miss additional education and support, as well as physically isolating them from their peers, increasing chances that a student will fail or drop out. Many of these truant children also come from dysfunctional homes and may be dealing with substance abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence, and suspensions do nothing to address the underlying issues for truancy or disruptive behavior.
These zero-tolerance policies only served to criminalize students for non-violent behaviors. Maria Hernandez, Orange County Superior Court Judge, contends that the truancy program was not serving its purpose, was unfairly punishing children and families, and was wasting the time of the courts. Punishing children in this way did not lower further truancy filings. There is also some evidence that a high level of suspensions also has a harmful impact on the students who are not suspended.
Restorative justice programs, such as responding to truancy with a team of social workers, probation officers, and help for families, was more effective at lowering truancy rates. These programs include addressing mental health issues, as well as conducting parent outreach, and speaking with families about the consequences of chronic absences, such as how quickly a child may start reading well below-grade level. They work to address the underlying causes for behavioral and truancy issues, and seek to help students learn from their mistakes. Working towards prevention is much more effective than punishment, reducing truancy, building community, and increasing reading levels and graduation rates.
Suspensions have fallen state-wide by 33.6% since 2011-2012, when the truancy program was overhauled, which particularly banned punishments for wilful defiance. Truancy filings have dropped from 256 to 56 in the same time period. Chronic absence rates have also dropped such as at LBUSD where they dropped from 26.18% in 2013-2014 to 9.6% in 2014-2015.
Of course, there is still work to go. There are concerns that, while reducing suspensions is applauded, that the alternatives in certain districts are sometimes undefined, resulting in unrulier classrooms, and sometimes more frequent calls to police. There are concerns that the program was not fully realized before being launched, although there are good examples of more fully developed programs in the state, such as in Oakland, which has seen very positive results. Additional resources, such as teachers and counselors, may often be needed, as well as smaller class sizes and additional training in restorative justice for teachers.
There is also a great need to address racial biases, as there is currently a huge disparity remaining in the percentage of African-American students who are affected by suspensions. In California, while African-Americans make up 6% of students, more than 14% of students suspended are black. One suggestion is training to identify these biases and to look at issues through a racial lens.
Overall, despite drawbacks, it is clear that moving towards restorative justice is positive, and the way to best get students out of the prison pipeline, keeping them out of the system, and keeping them in school.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com