MAGAZINE FEATURE

Decarceration Begins With School Discipline Reform

Educators have a role in ending discipline that criminalizes youth. Reforms, including trauma-informed and restorative practices, can disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
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Illustrations by Alex Trott

If the U.S. education system is to become equitable, its reproduction of historical oppression must be eliminated. The current system—born of the same DNA as a country that rendered the humanity of Black people invalid—is intertwined in a tradition that had the purpose of moving Black people into enslavement through incarceration. No structure in the U.S. educational system is immune to the nation’s legacy as an anti-Black, enslaver country, and that legacy is present in harsh discipline practices that disproportionally affect Black, Indigenous and other youth of color.

Criminalizing Blackness Has its Roots in Enslavement

The mechanisms to criminalize Black people have a history of enforcement that seeks compliance from all citizens. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, for example, forced Northerners to view enslaved people who escaped as criminals and held that “all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law.” The law attempted to compel everyone to participate in the capture of fugitives from slavery or face punishment if they aided their escape. And although there was resistance to these laws, as Abraham Lincoln said in his 1855 letter to Joshua Speed, “Northern people do crucify their feelings in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union.”

When the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in 1865, it allowed an exception as punishment for a crime “whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” After the amendment was ratified, Southern states enacted legislation to keep formerly enslaved Black people out of schools and to institutionalize them into the carceral system, thus returning many to an enslaved status. For example, in 1865, the Mississippi legislature passed “An act to regulate the relation of master and apprentice, as relates to freedman, free negroes, and mulattoes.” The law required civil officers to report to the probate courts the number of Black children who were orphans or whose parents did not have the means to provide childcare. Black children under 18 reported to the court were “apprenticed” to “some competent and suitable person,” and the former “owner” of the minor was given preference. Former enslavers took advantage of the law to keep formerly enslaved children under their control.

Harsh School Discipline Contributes to the School-to-Prison Pipeline

And in the current mass incarceration system, educators who are allies in ending the prison industrial complex often “crucify their feelings” in sacrificing students to show fidelity to “discipline” and “law and order.”

A 2021 study by researchers from Boston University, the University of Colorado Boulder and Harvard University confirms a relationship between experiencing harsh school discipline as a youth and being arrested or incarcerated as an adult. Researchers examined middle-school suspension rates in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) in North Carolina. Half of all students in CMS changed schools because of a shift in school-enrollment boundary lines in the summer before the 2002 academic year.

“Many educators are fighting against criminalizing students and are using trauma-informed and restorative justice practices to shift paradigms. For this change in thinking, educators must realize how the punitive discipline actions demanded of them are harmful.”

The new school-attendance boundaries meant some students who went to a school with low suspension rates then attended a school with higher rates. The study, which focused on the 26,246 students who experienced the boundary change, found that students who attended the “stricter” school were more likely to be suspended in the 2002-2003 school year. And according to the findings, students who attended stricter schools had a higher chance of being arrested and incarcerated between the ages of 16 and 21. As researchers explained, “Early censure of school misbehavior causes increases in adult crime—that there is, in fact, a school-to-prison pipeline.”

The same research found that the negative impacts from strict discipline are greatest for Black and other children of color, and for boys, with harsh policies, such as zero-tolerance, exposing students to the criminal legal system. In the same way white Northerners were forced to be surrogates of enslavers in the fugitive-to-enslavement pipeline, educators today are the hydraulics in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Due Process Failures for Black Youth

When being Black is viewed as synonymous with being a criminal, “duly convicted”—now as in the Jim Crow era—is often an inoperative condition for Black people. Sixteen-year-old Kalief Browder, for instance, was arrested, charged with theft, which he denied, and held at New York’s Rikers Island prison for 1,000 days, 700 of those in solitary confinement, without ever facing a trial. The tragic outcome—Browder’s death by suicide after his release—exemplifies the failures of due process for Black youth in a system that sees Black boys as criminals.

The problem of due process failure begins with school discipline practices. Claire Sherburne, staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Children’s Rights Practice Group, advocates for students facing suspensions and expulsions. Sherburne says that in some cases, schools levy criminal charges against students, bringing them into contact with the criminal legal system.

Two students arrested and expelled from Lee High School in Montgomery County, Alabama, in 2019, echo the pattern. The students, expelled because of alleged video evidence of them passing a handgun, were referred to juvenile court, where they were found innocent—the alleged gun was a cellphone. After their acquittal, however, the school board refused to allow them to return to campus. Sherburne explains that “One of the kids took his acquittal to school and said, ‘Hey, this was a cellphone. The juvenile court had a full trial and determined this. Can you let us back in?’ And the school said, ‘No, you missed your deadline to appeal your expulsion.’” The SPLC sued the Montgomery County school board for violating the students’ due process rights, and the board finally approved a settlement in 2021, which expunged the disciplinary expulsions and provided funds for educational services to make up for the 14 months the students were barred from school.

Alabama has no due process protections for students facing long-term suspension or expulsions. Each local board of education is required to annually adopt and distribute a code of student conduct that details grounds and procedures for disciplinary actions. State Senator Rodger Smitherman, a Democrat, introduced SB79 to “provide a uniform system of procedural due process protections for students.” The bill, however, is dead in committee.

Sherburne recounts a situation where a student was disciplined out of school for essentially talking back to a teacher. “She had a dress code violation; the teacher gave her a T-shirt to put on to cover her shoulders. [The student] had a little tantrum and threw the T-shirt across the room, vaguely in the direction of the teacher.” The expulsion churned the mechanisms of institutionalization for this student, who had behavioral issues related to trauma but never received services from the school.

“Because she was expelled,” Sherburne explains, “the county had to find a new placement. … But she also couldn’t enroll in school in any other counties. It essentially led to her getting placed in a residential treatment facility through the foster care system, because that was where she could get an education because usually those facilities will offer onsite educational services.” These situations create cycles of trauma for students, increasing the likelihood of contact with the criminal legal system.

“In Georgia, there’s a statute that prohibits disruption of public school,” Sherburne said. And anything—simple back talk, for instance—can “disrupt school.” Students can be criminalized for disruption, and even when not arrested, they can face lengthy periods of exclusion from school for almost anything. In addition, students who are suspended or expelled in Georgia face a particularly draconian displacement because of a law that authorizes schools to reject them, even in the absence of due process. These pushouts lead to disengagement with school and exacerbate behavioral problems that increase likelihood of dropping out and potential contact with law enforcement.

This directly impacts students in places like Gwinnett County, Georgia, where 33% of the 180,000 students are Black, but Black students account for 44% of school suspensions. The disproportional rate is also reflected in the Gwinnett County prison population. In 2015, of the 2,482 people in Gwinnett County prison, 1,219 are Black.

Photo illustration of young student raising their hand.

Educators Must Resist Perpetuating Harmful Systems

Many educators are fighting against criminalizing students and are using trauma-informed and restorative justice practices to shift paradigms. For this change in thinking, educators must realize how the punitive discipline actions demanded of them are harmful.

Mathew Portell, a former principal and current Director of Communities for Positive/Adverse Childhood Experiences (PACEs) Connection in Tennessee, explains his own evolution. “When I started my principalship, in all transparency, I was far from trauma-informed, and I was definitely far from restorative. So that first half of a year, I suspended kids. We physically contained kids. … These things that I knew, and I could feel in my gut … didn’t feel right, but it was what I was trained to do.” Portell attended a Barbara Gay Lecture in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University that ushered in an immediate change. “They started talking about adversity … [and the] impact of trauma on the brain. That started the journey. I felt that if I didn’t begin to shift what we were doing, I was committing malpractice.”

Within months, Portell’s school had their first trainings, and Portell hired a trauma-informed therapist. “When I looked at the numbers, the actual statistics of how the school-to-prison pipeline precursors were incarceration, [I knew] if I didn’t do something, then I was contributing. So the last three years I was the principal, we fully eliminated suspensions. We didn’t use them at all.” In their discipline model, Portell and his staff implemented the essential restorative justice questions: What did you think when you realized what had happened? What impact has this incident had on you and others? What has been the hardest thing for you? What do you think needs to happen to make things right? “The kids’ paradigm began to shift,” Portell explains. Implementing restorative justice practices is challenging because it requires a cultural shift, and that shift can be difficult because there must be capacity-building in staff and students. The change must involve more than simply eliminating punitive discipline.

It’s about creatively thinking about ways to have an impact.

In May 2022, Masten Park—a predominately Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, and a community that has faced poverty and displacement—experienced the trauma of lethal white supremacist violence at Tops supermarket, where a gunman murdered 10 people. Buffalo Collegiate Charter School, which has seven students who lost loved ones in the shooting, is using restorative justice and trauma-informed practices to support students and interrupt the harsh discipline practices that permeate society and schools in
the U.S.

Elizabeth Giglia, the school’s restorative justice coordinator, explained that “The same week of the shooting, our school was named, in addition to a couple other schools, as a threat on Twitter.” The threat toward the school created high tensions within the school community. Using trauma-informed practices, students were able to support one another during the community’s grieving process. “Different classrooms work[ed] with their students to create art and letters that they all deliver[ed] to the vigil at the end of the week. Those things are a great example of what a community would do,” she shares. “That’s such an appropriate, healthy, great way to process.”

Trauma-informed practices must be intentional and focused on emotional calm and stability for students during a time of community trauma. As Giglia explains, “We have to provide support, and that doesn’t mean flooding kids with information, [that] doesn’t mean flooding kids with … frenz[ied] activity. It means calm, stable, predictable, … routine, which sometimes butts up against people’s values when it comes to crisis and trauma and grief.”

In addition, restorative justice practices were used to prevent disruption and suspensions. “They encourage the students to build with each other so that the classroom isn’t in a classroom. It’s a community,” Giglia says, noting that restorative practices help prevent unwanted behaviors. “The prevention piece really is the community piece. If you feel connected to, or responsible for, a space or group of people, restorative practices build community. That’s kind of what it’s for.”

These practices also act as a barrier to keep the pervasive punitive punishment from entering the classroom.

“It’s about creatively thinking about ways to have an impact. Classroom management and discipline doesn’t mean zero tolerance,” Giglia urges. People are complex beings, and schools are structured so compliance takes precedence over learning, which affects the relationship between students and teachers. “Restorative practices … leverage a relationship that the teachers have spent time building with their students,” Giglia says.

For some schools, restorative justice does not mean no suspensions; it means finding ways to welcome students back after suspension to reduce recidivism. Giglia explains that at Buffalo Collegiate, “To reduce the anxiety of coming back in, we prep the kids who are there to say, ‘Let’s plan what we’re gonna say to welcome them back.’” This fosters student-generated support and a paradigm shift in which students are empowered to take ownership and facilitate the curation of classroom culture.

“They’re more likely to turn to each other for support when academics are challenging; they’re more likely to support each other when they’re having a hard time. And then when harm does occur, when there’s some kind of misbehavior, the classroom welcomes them back,” Giglia outlines. “The classroom sits in [a] circle and says, ‘You know, we’re happy to have you back. We have a problem with this, too. Here’s how we handle it.’”

Punitive school discipline practices, which disproportionately affect Black and Brown children, contribute to the flow of young people into the criminal legal system and the prison industry. To address the problem requires rethinking discipline and considering the rights of children. Trauma-informed and restorative justice practices are among the beginning models of an equity process to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. And while systemic change is essential, educators have an immediate responsibility to prioritize the mental health and well-being of students.

Learning for Justice Resources

The Foundations of Restorative Justice

Toolkit by Cory Collins

School discipline and classroom management do not have to be based in compliance. Learn more about restorative practices in this article.

Trauma-responsive Education

Webinar

This webinar will help educators gain a common understanding of trauma and how it affects both learning and relationships at school—for students and educators alike.

Responding to Trauma in Your Classroom

PD Café

This PD Café will help educators learn how to recognize the signs of trauma, better understand the causes of trauma, and take steps to establish social and emotional safety in the classroom.

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