The school-to-prison pipeline

By Daniel Weintraub

Even as Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing to decentralize control of California’s public schools, Roger Dickinson and his allies are, on one issue, pushing back. The Democratic assemblyman from Sacramento County wants the state to intervene to reduce the number of students suspended for defying the authority of adults on campus.

The problem, according to Dickinson and many others — including a growing number of law enforcement officials — is that many schools are too quick to remove students for acting out. When that happens, it can accelerate a cycle of bad behavior that leads from the classroom to the streets, and eventually to the criminal justice system. It’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

At the center of the debate is something called “willful defiance” – the term of art schools use to describe the behavior of disruptive students who frustrate teachers and administrators to the breaking point. The offense is a catch-all for non-violent behavior that doesn’t fit neatly into any other category, but is the number one reason given for suspending kids from school.

California schools suspend more than 700,000 students a year, about 11 suspensions for every 100 pupils. And an estimated 42 percent of those suspensions are for “willful defiance.” But a survey of local school districts a year ago found that barely one in four had a clear definition of the offense.

Numbers also show wide disparities among schools and districts. Los Angeles suspended just 5 students per 100 while Oceanside Unified suspended 30 per 100 students. Other data show that minority students are far more likely to be suspended than whites, even for committing the same offense.

Many teachers say that, if anything, they need more tools to control their classrooms, and more support from administrators who wait too long to take action. But others question whether the suspensions, especially for minor offenses, make schools and their surrounding communities any safer.

“Its not like these kids go home to mom and dad and are told they are going to go read a book in the corner until they can go back to school,” Dickinson told me in an interview last week. “The kids suspended out of school are five times more likely to drop out and 11 times more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system. The problem is transferred from the school to the community.”

That’s why a number of police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors have rallied around this issue. Former Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel said last year that sending kids home for non-violent offenses is the last thing schools should do.

“The only way we can educate our youth is to actually keep them in school,” Braziel said. Habitually acting out, he said, is “a sign of a child who needs more attention, not less.”

Braziel was joined by San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael Ramos, Nevada County Sheriff Keith Royal, Ceres Police Chief Art de Werk, and Los Gatos Police Chief Scott Seaman. They all supported a bill the Legislature passed last year that would have prevented schools from suspending students for willful defiance and forced them to develop alternative forms of discipline.

But Brown vetoed the bill, saying he believed local school districts were best able to decide which students should remain in the classroom and which should be removed.

“It is important that teachers and school officials retain broad discretion to manage and set the tone in the classroom,” the governor wrote in his veto message.

Now Dickinson is back with a new bill that he thinks the governor will find more acceptable. And soon, the legislator says, he will have new data that the hopes will persuade Brown to sign the bill.

The latest version bans the use of willful defiance as a reason for suspension only for elementary and middle school students. A high school student could still be suspended – though only on a third offense. And the new legislation does not require schools to develop alternative forms of discipline; it only encourages them to do so.

“We’ve had conversations with the school boards association and with the administrators to try to find an approach which is acceptable to them,” Dickinson said. “I can’t tell you we are all the way yet, but I think we are closer than last year.”

And in a few weeks, Dickinson said, the state Department of Education is expected to release new, more detailed numbers on school suspensions that the lawmaker thinks will confirm that black and Latino students are more likely to face suspension even when they commit the same offense as white children.

“I think that data is going to be a powerful tool in arguing to the governor, it’s fine to talk about discretion at the operational level, but if that principle is being implemented in a way that has irrational and unfair, adverse consequences to students, then it is something we need to address at the state level,” he said.

The good news is that even without state intervention, schools across the state are adopting more positive forms of discipline that seek to change students’ behavior while keeping them on campus.

Some of the programs start with kids as young as kindergarten. Others are more effective with high schoolers. The common theme is to set clear expectations for behavior, with clear consequences for acting out, and encourage students to talk about what’s driving them to be disruptive. That may strike some hardliners as coddling, but many of the programs are showing dramatic progress in reducing suspensions.

Oakland schools, for example, reported an 87 percent reduction in suspensions after the district began using a strategy known as “restorative justice” that brings perpetrator and victim together to try to make things right. Woodland, using a program known as Positive Behavior Intervention Supports, saved $100,000 in reimbursements by keeping more students enrolled. Other schools have reported success with younger children using a program known as the “Good Behavior Game.”

Brown deserves kudos for trying to let the schools manage their own affairs. But in the criminal justice system, we have one penal code, not a patchwork of local laws. It may be that we need similar uniformity for the schools to ensure equal justice for all.

At a minimum, local educators need to keep in mind that while it might sometimes be necessary to remove a disruptive student from the classroom, finding an on-campus alternative for that child is probably a better for the kid, the school and the community than sending him home or to the streets.

Daniel Weintraub has covered public policy in California for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report at

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