School-to-Prison Pipeline

Child being finger printed in police station while standing on a stack of books

Art by Arlene Mayerson – 2014
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“At some point, a student who has not gotten the academic help he or she needs is so far behind, so alienated, and has heard themselves described as a ‘bad student’ so repeatedly that misbehavior becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. One of our parent advocates always points out at parent trainings that the fear that a child will be labeled in special education ignores the fact that many of the kids that face repeated suspensions and sub-par academic performance already have labels at school: ‘bad’, ‘lazy’, ‘defiant’. Their parents are also given similar labels.” (Arlene Mayerson, DREDF Directing Attorney, Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Hearing Before the United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights, December 10, 2012)

The “School-to-Prison Pipeline” (STPP) refers to the policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.[1] Because this issue affects minority students of color with disabilities, dismantling the Pipeline requires an intersectional approach to disability and racial discrimination.

DREDF believes that a critical yet overlooked aspect of this crisis is the widespread failure of public schools to implement the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the landmark educational rights legislation passed 40 years ago, and other disability rights laws that mandate services for struggling students with disabilities. Our mission in this area is to disrupt the Pipeline through legal and legislative advocacy that ensures all students with disabilities receive robust special education and related services in inclusive settings.

The Problem

“I will continue to use those words [racism and ableism], because when we talk about biases and when we talk about stereotyping, it is easy to make one person a bogeyman. It is even easier to make the system the bogeyman, and not talk about the ways in which it is practiced in IEP meetings—those are individuals who were in the room making choices. That is, it is not the system functioning as in some kind of air that we breathe. It is peoples’ conscious decisions in those moments, sometimes fostered and funneled by unconscious thoughts, beliefs and ideas. But then that plays out in actual practice.” (Talina Jones, Parent Participant, National Council on Disability Quarterly Meeting and Convening on the School-to-Prison Pipeline, October 2014)

Students who qualify for special education too often receive inferior services in segregated settings and incur repeated disciplinary actions. According to the U.S. Department of Education (PDF), students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension (13 percent) than students without disabilities (6 percent). Students with disabilities represent 12 percent of the overall student population, yet make up 25 percent of all students involved in a school-related arrest, 58 percent of all students placed in seclusion, and a staggering 75 percent of all students physically restrained at school.

The numbers are even worse for students of color with disabilities. Over a quarter of African-American boys with disabilities, and 19 percent of African-American girls with disabilities, received at least one out-of-school suspension in 2011—2012. African-American students with disabilities represent 18.7 percent of the special education population, but 49.9 percent of special education students in correctional facilities.

Many disabled youth in the juvenile justice and criminal justice systems go through general education with unaddressed academic, behavioral, or mental health needs. For example, one study found that up to 85 percent of children in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education, yet only 37 percent receive services while in school.[2]

The Solution

This troubling data suggests widespread non-compliance with IDEA and other disability rights laws guaranteeing a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). A thorough review of a suspended or failing student’s file will likely show that he or she is in need of additional academic and behavioral supports, including but not limited to a referral for IDEA or Response to Intervention (RTI) services. This type of early invention is the key to changing their STPP trajectory.

For students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), short-term suspensions and other warning signs should trigger a review of the IEP to determine if there is a problem with instruction or other underlying problems that schools cannot remedy through exclusionary discipline.

DREDF is also committed to ensuring the disability community has a voice in the national STPP conversation. As the statistics demonstrate, we cannot address this crisis without a disability lens.

But in order to sell the promise of the IDEA in diverting students from the Pipeline, we must first address the fact that many families reject special education because of the stigma attached to disability. School-to-Prison Pipeline reform must include efforts to combat the disability stigma that schools have too often re-enforced through segregation and sub-par curricula.

[1] American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “What Is The School-to-Prison Pipeline?” (last accessed April 10, 2015).

[2] National Council on Disability, “National Disability Policy: A Progress Report,” 2011 (PDF). (last accessed April 10, 2015).

Restraint and Seclusion Practices: Another Intersectional Issue Involving Race and Disability That Needs Our Attention

Physical restraint or seclusion are only properly used when the student’s behavior poses an immediate danger of serious physical harm to the
self or others. Their purpose is not punitive or disciplinary yet these practices continue to be applied when students are judged annoying or disruptive but not dangerous, and when lower—level intervention earlier would have worked preventively.

As DREDF shared in a recent issue of our monthly Special EDition:

“The federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) collects data that shows that restraint and seclusion of students with disabilities served by IDEA represent 12 percent of the student population but 58 percent of those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement and 75 percent of those physically restrained at school to immobilize them or reduce their ability to move freely.

“There is a racial dimension, too — Black students represent 19 percent of students with disabilities served by IDEA but 36 percent of the students who are restrained at school through the use of a mechanical device or equipment designed to restrict their freedom of movement.”

Currently, there is no data proving that students — including very young children — who are subjected to improper restraint and seclusion practices are being channeled into the Pipeline. But they do share two important components: a disproportionate negative effect on disabled students of color, and both inappropriately respond to student behavior through disciplinary and/or punitive measures.

Whether students are traumatized by being held face down on the floor or kept alone in a room for long periods, or suspended, expelled, and thrown into the justice system, the results are young people who lose any future their education would have made possible.

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