The school-to-prison pipeline starts with an arrest in the classroom – something that has become more commonplace in recent years.
A school arrest, or school-based arrest, occurs either when a teacher calls police in response to student behavior, or an officer, known as a school resource officer, is stationed at the school and brought in to resolve the situation.
The rise of school arrests
Over the past 20 years, it has become common practice to station police officers in K-12 schools to handle delinquent children and violent incidents.
Unfortunately, schools were not required to report how many arrests they have until recently, so we don’t have complete national data on how many arrests occur on school grounds. But there are now over 43,000 police officers and 39,000 security guards in the nation’s 84,000 public schools.
In turn, individual studies are indicating this has resulted in significantly more arrests, with two separate studies on three different school districts each both revealed an increased reliance on law enforcement and arrests as methods of discipline.
The effectiveness of arrests at school
A Massachusetts study of three different school districts showed that many arrests are due to childish outbursts and that kids are charged with serious crimes for small acts of rebellion.
One 11-year-old in Massachusetts ran outside the building and threw a snowball at a teacher. As a result, the child faced charges of assault and battery on a public employee, disorderly conduct and disturbing a lawful assembly. A similar incident in Georgia involved a six-year-old getting arrested and put in handcuffs for throwing a temper tantrum.
This reliance on arrests for unruly behavior is questionable since several studies have concluded that there is no evidence that crime has actually decreased in school as a result of a stronger police presence.
The disproportionate arrests of minorities
It turns out that relying on law enforcement in schools has more of an impact on children from minority communities.
The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education recognized this as an issue in 2014 and wrote a letter to the nation’s school districts revealing that their investigations had concluded minorities are disproportionately disciplined in schools.
In their survey, they found that although African-American students make up about 15 percent of the country’s students, more than 50 percent of students involved in school-related arrests are Hispanic or African-American.
As a result, the classroom has effectively become a point of introduction to the criminal justice system for some minority communities. When considering the lifelong impact of an early-life arrest, this unsettling transformation of our education system can be considered nothing shy of catastrophic.
The finances of school-based arrests
The government has already been spending hundreds of millions more on stationing more police officers in schools in recent years and the lack of evidence to prove decreases in crime already calls the effectiveness of this spending into question.
Further, considering that some studies indicate that interaction with law enforcement at an early age leads to offending as an adult, spending on school resource officers appears to be creating, not solving, problems at a significant cost.
Investing in intervention programs might be well worth the cost in the long run, according to a National Justice Review that found that every $1 spent on family therapy saves $10 and every $1 spent in foster care treatment saves $8.
There can certainly be instances of violence and other behavior at schools that warrant calling the police, but relying on officers to discipline children is not realistic.
Moreover, the disproportionate impact of arrests on minority students has created a feeder tract for our criminal justice system out of what should be an area to promote achievement and inclusion.
Just like the overall criminal justice system, it will take more investment in rehabilitative programs and a movement away from law enforcement in schools to cut the flow of the school-to-prison pipeline.
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