The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is committed to challenging the "school to prison pipeline," a disturbing national trend wherein children, disproportionately children of color, are being funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children are the most vulnerable, with learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and should receive additional educational services rather than isolation and punishment.
Several policy trends in the public education and juvenile justice systems are to blame for this nationwide epidemic. First, the trend toward "zero-tolerance" policies criminalizing minor instances of school misconduct plays a vital role in pushing our children out of public schools. These zero-tolerance policies often result in children being suspended, expelled or arrested for relatively minor disciplinary infractions. The criminalization of school code violations funnels many children into the juvenile justice system instead of addressing misbehavior through parents, teachers and school administrators. The application of discipline is often discriminatory, with minority students being disciplined and referred to the juvenile justice system at higher rates than their white peers. In some cases, children are directly arrested for school code violations, and in others, they are sent to alternative schools for children with behavioral problems.
Second, schools increasingly ignore and bypass due process protections for children, particularly those with special needs and learning disabilities, in sending these children to alternative schools and the juvenile justice system. Children often receive no or deficient legal representation to aid them in challenging charges resulting from school code violations. Many of the juvenile detention facilities in which they serve sentences provide few, if any, educational services.
Third, various policy initiatives, including the No Child Left Behind Act, place an undue emphasis on high stakes testing, which creates incentives for schools to push out low performing students in order to boost their overall test scores and avoid facing federal penalties. Also in an attempt to avoid NCLB Act-related penalties, some school districts fail to report accurate graduation rates that accurately account for students who dropped out or were channeled into the juvenile justice system. These practices distort the reality that large numbers of minority children are being undereducated and displaced from the public education system.
The ACLU is working to challenge numerous policies and practices within public school systems and the juvenile justice system that contribute to the school to prison pipeline.