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Letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee on "Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline”

December 10, 2012

Dear Senator:

On behalf of the more than three million members of the National Education Association, we would like to enter the following statement into the record of the December 12 hearing, “Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”  

The school-to-prison pipeline is both an education and a social justice issue. Overly harsh zero-tolerance discipline policies, misguided high-stakes testing, insufficient services and support, and rising class sizes are pushing more and more students out of the public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The overwhelming majority are students of color. To address this troubling trend, the educational system and the judicial system must collaborate, cooperate, and replace punitive zero-tolerance policies with positive strategies that emphasize keeping kids in school — not suspending or expelling them for misbehavior or failure to thrive academically. Such strategies must address the needs of the whole child. 

At the same time, it is important to remember that suspensions and expulsions may be sometimes necessary to ensure the safety of the entire school community, including students, teachers, and education support professionals. One of our members put it this way: 

I have been teaching in an urban high school for 32 years. Students are expelled for violent acts — fights and assaults — and for possessing and/or being under the influence of drugs or alcohol. If the offending students aren’t expelled and remain in the building, where are they supposed to be housed? What staff member wants to be responsible for a violent student or a student high on drugs? What about the safety of the other students and staff? Isn’t it fair to have a safe environment for everyone? I have devoted my life’s work to inner-city kids and it is truly heartbreaking to watch so many of them make incredibly bad choices over and over.  

Overly harsh zero-tolerance discipline policies

In response to highly publicized incidents of violence like the massacre in Columbine High School in Colorado, schools across the nation have implemented zero-tolerance policies that mandate specific punishments for misbehavior, culminating in suspension or expulsion from school. According to news reports, the punishments are often wildly disproportionate to the infractions — for example, students have been suspended for talking back to teachers and violating dress codes.   

The intent of zero-tolerance policies is laudable — to ensure safe schools, the best learning environment for all students. But implementation has been deeply flawed in many schools, districts, and states. Moreover, evidence is mounting that overly harsh punishments have widened achievement gaps and raised dropout rates among students of color and students with disabilities, many of whom are already at risk due to histories of poverty, abuse or neglect.  

Nationwide, 17 percent (1 in 6) K-12 black students are suspended at least once — more than double the rate of other subgroups. The risk of suspension is 8 percent (1 in 12) for Native Americans, 7 percent (1 in 14) for Latinos, 5 percent (1 in 20) for whites, and 2 percent (1 in 50) for Asian Americans. Overall, students with disabilities are suspended twice as often as their non-disabled peers. The suspension rate is highest for black students with disabilities: 25 percent (1 in 4) were suspended at least once during the 2009-10 school year. (Source: “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School,” Civil Rights Project at the University of California Los Angeles, August 2012)  

Alarming as they are, these statistics do not capture the full story. Overly harsh punishments can even cause previously successful students to disengage or drop out. The following story, submitted by an NEA member who now lives and teaches in the state of New York, illustrates how this can happen:

My son attended a school in Florida in 9th grade. He was regularly teased by one particular boy in the classroom until one day, he poured some paper scraps over the boy’s head after being called “gay” prior to the beginning of a class. The boy kicked my son in the stomach in response (he was aiming lower but missed), sending him falling backwards over his desk. The noise brought the teacher back into the classroom just as my son got back up and punched the guy in the stomach in response. Both boys were immediately suspended from school (zero tolerance policy).

As an educator and responsible parent, I was mortified that my son was involved in a physical altercation and went to the school immediately. I found out that my son was expelled for 10 days, and that he had lost the right to learn even though he has a processing disorder and is protected from discrimination by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Returning to school 10 days behind left my son permanently behind and he had the worst educational year of his life. It was hard work getting him to find relevance in continuing to finish out his year. He felt that it was hopeless and he was wasting his time.

My son is not a violent person. He is a ballet dancer. And he is white. The zero tolerance policy made it almost impossible for him to succeed the rest of the school year. And he has successful, professional, and supportive parents. I can only imagine the difficulty that students with less home support must encounter in similar situations.

Misguided high-stakes testing

Increased emphasis on accountability is the hallmark of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Second Education Act (ESEA), first passed in 1965 as part of the War on Poverty. Both sides of the political aisle acknowledge that NCLB’s approach to accountability needs to change. The undue emphasis on federally mandated, narrow student assessments as the primary accountability yardstick has led to mislabeling and sanctioning schools based on test scores, as well as insufficient funding and support for struggling students and schools. It has also narrowed the curriculum and created perverse incentives to push out low-scoring students, making it virtually impossible for them to acquire the skills necessary to become productive members of society.  

For the sake of today’s children, the future leaders of America, It is imperative to begin addressing these issues as soon as possible. The next reauthorization of ESEA is long overdue. A recent report from the RAND Corporation stresses the need for multiple measures of performance that capture the full spectrum of skills learned in school:  

“[P]ublic schools are expected to promote a variety of outcomes, of which academic achievement as measured by standardized tests is only one. Additional goals of schooling include the preparation of students for life after school, which includes not only readiness for college or the workplace but also social and behavioral outcomes, such as displaying self-regulating behavior, taking personal responsibility, and demonstrating an ability to work in teams… [A]n expanded set of measures could increase the validity of inferences about schools’ effectiveness and offer relevant information to principals and teachers about how to improve their schools’ performance.” (Source: Heather L. Schwartz, Laura S. Hamilton, Brian M. Stecher, and Jennifer L. Steele: Expanded Measures of School Performance, RAND Corporation, 2011)

Insufficient services and support

Research confirms what common sense tells us: at-risk students need additional services and support to succeed — everything from small class sizes to counseling. Just the opposite is happening in our schools today. Tens of thousands of teachers, counselors, psychologists, social workers, and classroom aides have been laid off, depriving hundreds of thousands of students with little or none of the services and support they need. In the words of our members, this is the situation:

As funding is slashed for public schools, already stressed teachers are being asked to fix seriously at-risk students who often need intense psychological interventions. I am not a trained mental health professional, a probation officer or a detention center guard. I teach French. Please let me do that.

We need funding to be able to provide counseling and teach more appropriate behaviors and parents should be involved in the re-teaching process. Sometimes kids are behaving in ways that are socially acceptable at home and sometimes parents need tools to help them deal with their children appropriately. Teachers need to be able to teach and students need to feel safe and be able to concentrate on learning. Provide support!

As a teacher of students with behavioral and emotional disorders, I believe that some suspensions are warranted for SAFETY reasons as long as the student is in a learning environment with trained school personnel. I also believe that while behaviors are/should be taught/learned in the home, parents and educators must function as a team in teaching positive behaviors and setting expectations and goals. What bothers me most is “punishment without teaching and re-teaching.” How can we suspend students, and then bring them back into the fold with NO attempt at remediation??? They will only learn if we REQUIRE them to reflect and set new behavior goals, then hold them accountable for meeting those goals!

The lingering economic downturn, the worst since the Great Depression of the 1930s, has crippled already underfunded programs for students with special needs. The federal government covers just 16 percent of special education costs when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides that it will pay 40 percent. Last year alone, the shortfall shifted nearly $17 billion to states and local school districts — forcing them to choose between raising taxes and dipping into general education budgets, thereby cutting other critical services. 

Class sizes are rising when they should be falling — research shows that small K-3 classes confer lifelong benefits. In the early 1980s, the Tennessee Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio (STAR) study, the gold standard in research on class size and student achievement, established that kids in small K-3 classes do better in later grades. Three decades later, a team of researchers led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty tracked down the now middle-aged students from the original STAR study. Those in small K-3 classes were more likely to attend college, own their homes, and earn higher salaries — $16,000 more per person or $320,000 more for a class of 20. (Source: Raj Chetty et al, How Does Your Kindergarten Classroom Affect Your Earnings? Evidence from Project Star, 2011)  


Schools need to revisit and replace overly harsh zero-tolerance policies with approaches that actually work — for example, school-wide positive behavioral support programs and behavior intervention plans for students who need them. Such programs should aim to teach students the proper way to behave instead of assuming they know how, and require communication with parents about expectations and acceptable behaviors at school so they can be reinforced at home. NEA’s policy brief, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports: A Multi-tiered Framework that Works for Every Student, provides a comprehensive review and analysis of the issues involved.

 To ensure that at-risk students have sufficient services and support, Congress must reauthorize and fully fund ESEA and IDEA. The reauthorization process is also an opportunity to address misguided high-stakes testing and other counterproductive practices that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.  

Educators need professional development in culturally responsive classroom instruction,  behavior management, and techniques for preventing and de-escalating student misbehavior. 

Schools must have the resources to keep class sizes small, especially in kindergarten through third grade, to allow educators to work with students individually.  

Parent, family, and community involvement is a proven way to raise student achievement, and can be encouraged in a variety of ways — for example, home visits, mentoring, outreach programs, and more. A recent report from NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, Family-School-Community Partnerships 2.0, shows the way with case histories of 16 successful efforts from coast to coast.   

Ultimately, however, the only way to end the school-to-prison pipeline is to address the needs of the whole child. Kids who come to school hungry or sick are not ready to learn. Kids who don’t have good role models at home nonetheless need to learn what it means to be a responsible citizen, why it is important to be on time, how to behave in different settings.  

For some kids, especially poor kids, the only hope of getting such help is schools with wraparound services such as after-school programs that provide enriching experiences, counseling and parent-education programs, and school-based medical and dental care. The acclaimed Harlem Children’s Zone takes this approach. So can traditional public schools with sufficient funding and commitment to the goal: transforming not just a struggling school, but an entire community.  

America’s public schools educate nine out ten of our nation’s students. On behalf of them, their teachers, and education support professionals all across the nation, NEA thanks you for the opportunity to address end the school-to-prison pipeline.


Mary Kusler
Director, Government Relations