Outgunned: Replacing Incarceration With Graduation

In part 2 of a five-part series, the NAACP offers steps to ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

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Editor’s note: Read part 1 here.

Talking about the intersection of gun violence and schools instantly draws our hearts and minds to the tragic shootings at Columbine, Sandy Hook and Sparks Middle School. However, in communities like Chicago and Detroit, where shootings take the lives of hundreds of people each year, the relationship between violence and education is less about location and more about lesson plans.

Dozens of studies have concluded what seems obvious: When students drop out of school, they are more likely to be incarcerated. This is particularly true for African-American male dropouts, who, according to a 2009 study, are much more likely to be jailed than their counterparts of other races. 

If we are to stem the tide of gun violence, we must make a greater effort to keep our students in the classroom. This is a two-pronged effort.

First we must close the school-to-prison pipeline that takes our children out of the classroom for minor misbehavior and throws them into the criminal-justice system. Zero-tolerance policies have turned over disciplinary authority from principals to police, leading to arrests of students for small infractions like running in the halls or disrupting class. For example, last year in Florida more than 12,000 public school students were arrested 13,870 times—67 percent of which were for misdemeanors.

The consequences for students can be life-altering. A 2006 study (pdf) by Gary Sweeten shows that a first-time high school arrest nearly doubles a student’s odds of dropping out, and a court appearance nearly quadruples them. In addition, exposure to the juvenile-justice system too often serves as a gateway to the adult version, especially since an arrest record for anything other than a traffic violation is also often a barrier to employment.

Closing the school-to-prison pipeline can be done. This month Broward County, Fla., jumped to the top of leading reform models when the NAACP and community groups brokered an official agreement with the school district, the sheriff’s office, county courts, the public defender’s office and the state attorney’s office to make the changes necessary to keep children in school and out of the criminal-justice system.

Before the agreement, students were arrested for throwing M&M’s in class. Under the new system, police involvement will be a last resort. This is a critical step in the right direction for a county plagued by low graduation rates and low school performance alongside high suspensions, high juvenile arrests and high dropout rates.

The second step to ending the culture of violence is ensuring that schools provide students with greater opportunity for academic success. An estimated 52 percent of black males graduate from high school, which is far behind the rate for their white counterparts (78 percent). At its core, the decision to drop out of school is a risk-vs.-reward analysis. If children feel lost in the education system, with little hope of acquiring the skills needed to succeed, they are more likely to risk their opportunity for a diploma and seek their validation on the street with a weapon. 

Changing this analysis requires rethinking how we support our students and how we teach them. Last year the NAACP released a report titled “Finding Our Way Back to First” that lays out four key steps toward this goal: 1) early-childhood education, 2) effective teaching, 3) expanded time for learning and 4) targeted spending. If we tackle each of these issues head-on, our students will be better prepared to succeed and less likely to decide in favor of dropping out.

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Sept. 19 2014 8:34 AM