Wednesday, August 21, 2013

New Report Finds an Active School-to-Prison Pipeline in the Wake County Public School System

Students exhibiting minor misbehavior may find themselves suspended and on a pathway to the delinquency and criminal systems if they attend Wake County, NC public schools – particularly if they are African-American, have a disability, and/or are economically disadvantaged – new research shows.

In just the 2011-12 school year alone, the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) handed out 14,626 suspensions, thousands of which were for so-called Level 1 offenses such as attendance issues and “noncompliance.” And in a system where only 24.7 percent of the student population is African-American, more than 60 percent of the suspensions fell on black students.

The research, distilled in a new report entitled, “The State of the School-to-Prison-Pipeline in the Wake County Public School System,” was released on August 19, by Advocates for Children’s Services (ACS), a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina. The report is based on data from the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year for which data is available.

“This is the most comprehensive school-to-prison pipeline report ever produced about a school district in North Carolina,” said Jason Langberg, an attorney for ACS and a co-author of the report. “What we found in reviewing thousands of pages of public records and analyzing extensive data was that the WCPSS does not have a comprehensive, coordinated approach to preventing misbehavior and intervening when it occurs.”

Some key findings of the report include:

 - Long-term suspension rates in WCPSS were among the highest in North Carolina, in part due to the district’s severe shortage of alternatives to suspension (e.g., restorative justice, community service, and mandatory counseling).

 - The district had a severe shortage of school psychologists, social workers and guidance counselors, with ratios well below national recommendations.

 - The alternative schools and programs within the WCPSS are highly segregated, low-achieving and punitive.

 - The WCPSS had a massive security presence in its schools – including a Security Department staff, private security guards, and law enforcement officers – yet security personnel lacked adequate training, limitations and accountability, and inconsistencies existed among schools.

 - Arbitrary suspension recommendations from an inadequate Code of Conduct are leading to inequitable applications. Nearly all long-term suspensions are recommended to extend through the end of the school year, so two students who commit the same offense may receive vastly different suspension periods depending on when they committed their offense.

Particularly troubling was the finding that the WCPSS is funneling students, particularly students of color, directly into the juvenile delinquency system at increasing and alarming rates. During the 2011-12 state fiscal year, school-based delinquency complaints increased by 23.5 percent from the previous year, with nearly three-quarters of those complaints being filed against African-American students.

“This report provides a clear overview of the state of school discipline in Wake County,” said Matt Ellinwood, a policy analyst at the Education & Law Project of the North Carolina Justice Center. “While some progress has been made in recent years, it is apparent that the WCPSS and districts across the state continue to adhere to punitive school discipline policies that are counterproductive in terms of improving student achievement and behavior rather than implementing research-based practices designed to prevent misbehavior and support the education of at-risk students.”

The report also found that while alternative education programs can be effective in managing students with academic or behavioral issues and can combat the school-to-prison pipeline, such programs in the WCPSS often work counterproductively. All WCPSS alternative schools operate as racially-identifiable, high-poverty schools. African-American students comprise 71.5 percent of the population and more than 75 percent of students come from economically disadvantaged families. The suspension rate for these alternative schools in the 2011-12 school year was almost 12 times the rate at the district-wide level, with 11.7 suspensions per 10 students. All alternative settings reported significantly lower end-of-grade (EOG) and end-of-course (EOC) exam passage rates than at the district-wide level. At the lowest end of the spectrum, only 5.1 percent of Longview school students demonstrated proficiency on all EOG exams, only 23.7 percent of students were proficient on all EOC exams, and only 10.5 percent of students graduated on time. For students suspended from a traditional school seeking an alternative learning environment, the WCPSS’s alternative programs fall short in providing adequate support and services.

Although the WCPSS has a massive security network (private security guards, school resource officers, WCPSS security staff, off-duty law enforcement officers and law enforcement officers who come onto campus for investigations), the report found there were few guidelines and accountability mechanisms in place. The lack of such accountability is troubling, given the reported increase in school-based delinquency complaints and the history of security personnel using TASERs, pepper spray and excessive force in Wake County.

Moreover, North Carolina is the only state that treats all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, so any time a school-based complaint is filed against a WCPSS student over age 16, the student goes straight into the adult criminal system. In an attempt to increase safety and security, the WCPSS is instead sending students directly into a school-to-prison pipeline.

“The data unfortunately show that the WCPSS still too often relies on pushing its most high-need students into low-performing alternative schools, out on the streets via suspension, or, at alarmingly increasing rates, straight into the court system,” said Jennifer Story, an attorney for ACS and co-author of the report. “We hope that this report will educate stakeholders about current problems and best practices and stimulate necessary dialogue and action.”

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