Is there a School to Prison pipeline in your county?

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A few weeks ago we told you about our recent win in Jasper County.  This week, we wanted to tell you more about the kids who were denied their right to an education and the School-to-Prison pipeline that is permanently altering the lives of so many kids in our state.

Imagine being an 18 year old on the cusp of finishing high school, eagerly pursuing a promising future.  Soon you will not only be finished with your coursework, but when you graduate you will also hold in your hand certification in a trade that guarantees you a chance at a solid job, with good wages and the opportunity to  someday own your own business.   Making these accomplishments even sweeter is the fact that you have gotten to this point in your life despite a disabling condition that made learning more challenging for you. Then, a single choice takes all of that away.  One youthful decision to run into a fight instead of away from it costs you everything.  You are removed from school, charged with a crime, and your mug shot is posted in the paper.  Instead of tossing your cap with friends at graduation, you are at home, alone, trying to figure out what to do.

Now imagine you are a different 18 year old.  You, too, have special needs to address, but they aren’t easy to fix.  You struggle with not only reading and math, but also with figuring out how to act in a classroom.  There are notes from teachers throughout your school records that say “this student is not able to control his frustration” and “he exhibits disrespect to adults and authority when embarrassed.”  But it doesn’t take an expert to figure out why you are frustrated and embarrassed:  at 18, you read on a kindergarten level and are on a second grade math level.  Not only have you missed out on the appropriate academic program to help you make progress, but you’ve also gone without any counseling, behavioral instruction, or other interventions to make sure you can have a chance at succeeding in school.  Discipline referrals pile up, and eventually, you are absent from school more than you are in it – either suspended or just staying away from a place that doesn’t seem to be for you.  You are caught up in criminal activity one day when you were supposed to be in school, and, seeing no other option, a judge sentences you to adult prison for a year.

These two students are not imaginary.  They are part of a systemic complaint that SC Appleseed brought against Jasper County School District (JCSD).  We heard their stories – along with many others – examined their records, and filed an administrative complaint with the SC Department of Education asking them to investigate JCSD’s practices.  These two students’ terrible experiences are just two examples of how a district’s failure to follow the law has real and devastating consequences for young people – and just how easily students can be derailed from their education and shunted into the criminal justice system.

The “school-to-prison pipeline” is what we call the policies and education procedures that drive students out of schools and into prisons. Some students drop out of school when these policies and procedures make them feel unwanted. Some are forced out by harsh, exclusionary discipline.  Once out of the schools, idle time and criminal opportunities abound.  Soon, arrests follow. This pipeline disproportionately impacts kids of color and kids with disabilities.  Research shows that once students are excluded from school, their probability of success in life dramatically declines and their future more often than not includes poverty and contact with the criminal justice system.  Check out SC Appleseed’s infographic to see an example of how the School-to-Prison works, and the alternative.

This tragic result is why SC Appleseed filed the systemic complaint.  These two students did not receive needed special education services. The result? They were suspended from school, recommended for expulsion, and faced criminal charges.

While common sense tells us that schools should do everything they can to help kids become productive members of society, it’s also the law.  There were interventions that JCSD was required to take that would have kept these two students learning.  Every indication was that these two were not alone in their loss of education.  This complaint was meant to stem the tide of students being pushed out of Jasper schools and into a life of academic and economic failure.

In response to SC Appleseed’s complaint, the State Department of Education conducted an extensive investigation into the treatment of all special education students in Jasper County, not just the two students named in the complaint, and found numerous violations of the law. As a result, the district is being forced to take corrective action to fix the problems.  In fact, the district faces a pending deadline to meet with every parent in the district with a child whose rights may have been violated.

Bringing a legal challenge to educational violations typically results in one remedy:  compensatory education.  There are no money damages. Instead there is a mandate that the school district make up for the education lost when the students were removed from school, moved into the wrong program, or even stuck in the same program year after year without progress.  Notably, in Jasper, not only did the SC Department of Education order the district to compute how much compensatory education is owed the two named students, the SCDE ordered Jasper County Schools to determine the compensatory education needs of all students who lost valuable days or years of schooling.

JCSD was also ordered to retrain teachers and administrators on how to follow the law, on how to write and follow individual education plans for students, and how to discipline students fairly and legally.  They were ordered to put in place a system of checks to make sure what happened to our two lead students never happens to any other child in Jasper.

We at SC Appleseed are committed to making sure the school to prison pipeline in our state ends, but we can’t do it alone.  Unfortunately there is evidence that these practices are going on all over the state.  Find out how you can help by getting in touch with us.