Outside Looking In: Get ‘Em While They’re Young

17 05 2011

Punishment does not teach what to do. – Texas Education Agency (Adobe Flash Player required)

This article concerns what has been termed the “school to prison pipeline” by the ACLU and others. The school to prison pipeline is defined by the ACLU on the linked page as

[…] a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out. “Zero-tolerance” policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while high-stakes testing programs encourage educators to push out low-performing students to improve their schools’ overall test scores. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.

The ACLU (and others) decry the existence of Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs (DAEP) as being part of this pipeline system. As with many subjects a great deal of fact-checking is necessary to separate fact from fiction.

Texas is a state that utilizes DAEPs, and the Texas Education Agency states officially that a DAEP is

[…] defined as an educational and self-discipline alternative instructional program, adopted by local policy, for students in elementary through high school grades who are removed from their regular classes for mandatory or discretionary disciplinary reasons and placed in a DAEP. (Cite)

As noted in the opening to this article, the TEA has a narrated PowerPoint presentation that explains their educational disciplinary philosophy on their web site. In short, DAEPs are downplayed in favor of fostering an environment where students can learn and become productive members of the community with the DAEP serving as something of a safety net for students that require, for instance, additional mentoring and instruction for things like decision making and conflict management. Whether it be theory or practice in Texas, I did nod a lot during the admonishment by the narrator against what was termed reactive discipline as it seems to define the crime and punishment attitude of law enforcement and the court system as opposed to focusing on what I will call “right action”. I will have more to say about reactive discipline in a future article.

Unfortunately, as reported by National Public Radio (NPR) in 2007, DAEPs are not a safety net per se but a tool for Texas schools to separate underachieving and troubled students from the general student population as a rung on the downward ladder into a future stay in a county, state, or federal prison.

But most of the students removed from Texas classrooms have committed relatively minor, nonviolent offenses, says Rebecca Lightsey of Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based advocacy group. For many, this marks the beginning of the end of school.

Lightsey’s group conducted a study on the effects of Texas’ “zero tolerance” approach to discipline in schools. It found that students sent to alternative schools are five times more likely to drop out — and they’re more likely to end up in prison.

The TEAs view toward alternative schools as a disciplinary tactic, while dressed up in language designed to stress the positive benefits (or intent) of DEAPs, does seem to contain a whiff of prison lite, as found in a document outlining best practices for DAEPs (PDF link):

Enable teachers to take on unique roles that fill particular program needs (e.g., the strict disciplinarian).

Reading through the best practices material, I wondered why existing Texas schools could not put an emphasis on proactive, positive discipline rather than relying on the safety net of the DAEP. I do understand that suspensions and expulsions are punishments that remove students from the school and can indeed lead to further disciplinary and behavioral problems that would have been better addressed within the confines of the school system at large rather than left for someone else, e.g. parents to address, if at all. But what troubled me about the DAEP story as reported by NPR was this:

In Harris County, Texas, on the edge of Houston, court is in session. On a recent day, a couple hundred people wait in the administrative building to pay fines for traffic violations or other minor offenses. Some of them aren’t even old enough to drive. Every week, dozens of school children show up to resolve class-C misdemeanor citations: They get tickets for acting out in class.

In my research of the local inmate population (in Kenosha WI), I found one inmate who is in jail because he or she (name/gender withheld to protect privacy) simply cannot afford to pay what appear to be modest fines for a motor vehicle infraction. This person will, barring any sort of outside intervention, spend one more month in jail until his or her court date. This particular person is over the age of 18. If this person is in what amounts to a debtor’s prison, what then might we expect to come from unpaid fines levied on school-aged children? Will the child be put in juvenile detention? Will the parent or guardian spend time in jail by proxy? Is ticketing for in-school infractions a first or last resort on the part of the teacher or administration?

(As an aside, the NPR story is almost 4 years old now and Texas may have taken steps since that time to make the above less ambiguous.)

Finally, I remarked once that if schools don’t want to be branded as “prison” (a charge usually levied by kids who don’t like being forced to attend), then why are they using terminology that translates neatly into the prison system?

For example, the elementary school across the street from my home periodically announces “early release” dates. I racked my brain trying to remember what such days were called when I was a child, and the answer was provided by another local elementary school: Early dismissal.

Inmates are released. Students are dismissed.

Even the TEA resorts to the language of law enforcement in describing how students might be referred to a DAEP:

Within three days after the date a student is removed from class, the principal or another appropriate administrator must schedule a conference with the student, the parent or guardian of the student, and the teacher or administrator who re moved the student from class. The student may not be returned to the regular classroom before the conference is held. At the conference, the student is entitled to an opportunity to respond to the reasons for the removal. Following the conference, the principal must order placement of the student for a period consistent with the student code of conduct. If school district policy allows a student to appeal such a decision to the board of trustees, the decision of the board is final and may not be appealed.

Under special circumstances, a principal may order the immediate placement of a student in a DAEP. At the time of an emergency placement, the student must be given oral notice of the reason for the action. Within 10 days after the date of the placement, the student must be accorded due process.

I think parents and non-parents alike would do well to examine such policies in depth and determine what best suits their child(ren), and their community.




One response

17 05 2011

I can’t disagree with everything here, and perhaps this applies more to those who teach upper grades, but I can report my own experience: the only child I have taught that was sent to alternative school went after attempting to leave the school building, and slamming a teacher assistant’s arm in the heavy exterior door, injuring her, as she was trying to prevent him from leaving.

I think local policy requires that a child get 6 discipline referrals, with all the warnings, counseling, and interim warnings and punishments included, before alternative school is even considered.

The rights of the children who repeatedly end up in trouble must be considered, as well as the effect on that child’s future. Of course everyone
who interacts with any child must ensure that they do no harm. However, this doesn’t mean ignoring the rights of all the other children in the classroom to an education free from continual interruption and potential violence. I have witnessed calm, rational, effective alternative schools that provided the personal attention, social training, and individualized instruction that its students needed, and were nothing like prisons. It’s more of those that we need.

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