“A form of slavery all over again.”
That’s how Paulette Foster describes the cycle of trauma, exclusion and criminalization that students — particularly students of color — endure in American schools.
“It’s systemic,” says the co-founder of Pittsburgh’s Education Rights Network, which organizes parents for disability and racial equity in public schools. “You have children coming to school who are hungry, who are homeless, who are uneducated. And when you suspend them, you’re keeping them that way.”
Indeed, suspensions, expulsions and school referrals to law enforcement have long been linked to negative outcomes, from lower test scores to higher drop-out and incarceration rates. And to a stunning degree, the use of such measures disproportionately affects minority students — according to national data, black children are almost four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers, despite research finding that neither group commits more frequent or more serious offenses than the other.
They’re also far more likely to be incarcerated: In 2012, the rate of detention for black youth in Allegheny County was 19 times higher than that of white youth. The statistics are even worse for kids with disabilities.
This school-to-prison pipeline runs straight through the Pittsburgh region. Poverty, racism and years of inequitable funding have created schools with lots of need but few resources, activists say. These are schools where probation officers outnumber guidance counselors and a culture of zero tolerance treats minor infractions as serious crimes.
The consequences can ruin lives: Once students enter the justice system, it can be all but impossible to get out. Activists regularly trade stories of dreams dashed in juvenile detention, of adults denied jobs because of years-old records, and of families who face eviction when a child is judged delinquent.
In the face of mounting moral, social and economic costs, Pittsburghers are pushing back. They are students, educators, lawyers and parents, and they’re working to sever the pipeline for good. But changing minds is difficult work, they say —especially when they’re up against entrenched systems, implicit biases and the heavy weight of history.
What is happening right now in Pittsburgh?
“We know this story,” says Tiffany Sizemore, assistant professor at Duquesne University’s School of Law. She’s sitting in her office: a half-conference room, half-mock courtroom on the second floor of a brown brick building Uptown. “Judges, prosecutors, everyone in the system — we know this story. Because we’ve seen it happen over and over again.”
It goes like this: A student gets into trouble at school. Maybe he or she gets into a fight, or maybe it’s a smaller incident — the student is late for class or otherwise slow to comply — and it escalates. The school suspends the student and calls the police, referring the child to the juvenile justice system. If the student is age 10 older, officials can push the case into court and formally arraign the student.
“Students of color and kids with disabilities tend to get pushed deeper into the system and more quickly,” says Sizemore, “because it’s not set up to support them and the trauma that many of them bring. So instead, we institutionalize them.”
The numbers are startling. Though referrals have dropped by 40 percent since 2010, more than 3,300 young people encountered Allegheny County’s juvenile justice system in 2015, according to a report released by The Pittsburgh Foundation. Of those young people, more than 2,600 were detained in secure facilities. More than 70 percent were black. And 73 percent of referrals — many of which came from schools — were for nonviolent offenses.
Sizemore, a former public defender, shakes her head. “Those records can have consequences that most people don’t realize,” she says. “Kids are denied jobs, military service, public housing and driver’s licenses. At what point are we going to stand up and say, ‘This is insanity, and we’re not doing this to children anymore?’”
The question led her to launch two clinics at Duquesne Law: the Juvenile Defender Clinic and the Education Law Clinic. Founded in 2015, they serve separate but related goals, representing young people in matters of delinquency offenses, school discipline and special education.
Together, they provide free representation for low-income clients who couldn’t otherwise afford a private lawyer. With the help of professor and psychologist Dr. Tammy Hughes, Sizemore brings students of law, social work and school psychology together to provide holistic representation and support.
Today, they’re busier than ever, defending young people in court, expunging juvenile records and preparing kids to appear in front of judges. But the fact that there’s so much work, says Sizemore, speaks to problem’s severity.
“The bottom line is that schools have to stop suspending students for nothing at all. That’s where this all starts,” she says. “Look, kids push boundaries. They talk back. They have temper tantrums and slam lockers. These things are the nature of childhood.
“But in what world is it okay to put a seven-year-old in handcuffs? This isn’t court. This isn’t prison. It’s a school. And schools are supposed to be sanctuaries.”
How are students making a difference?