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FORMERLY INCARCERATED YOUTH: The Unknown Collaterals of The School to Prison Pipeline


By: Me’Dina Cook

True or False?: Every child in the United States, who wishes to attend general public school, is allowed to enroll.

You are on your computer and you decide to click on a video that it seems all your social media friends have continuously shared. You press play and on your screen you see a little girl sitting in her chair with a police officer standing nearby. Suddenly, the police officer yanks the girl’s arm and in a struggle flips her and the chair over. The girl is subsequently dragged by her hair and arrested. The little girl is African-American. This happens during class, in front of all the other students and the teacher.

Videos like the one described above have bought great attention to the phenomenon labeled as the “school-to-prison pipeline”. The “school-to-prison pipeline” is a phrase that describes policies and practices of schools around the nation that drastically increases the chances of minority school children being incarcerated. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, there is not one state where white students are being suspended at the same rate as black students. What this means is that every state reports suspending African-American students at a higher rate than their Caucasian counterparts. Activists and scholars alike have been engaging in discussions about how to remedy the fact that 70% of students referred to law enforcement are Black and Latino. However there has been less consideration given to the consequences that this pipeline has on the students who end up in juvenile justice facilities as a result of these overly harsh punishment procedures.

The answer is False. Children who have spent any significant time in juvenile detention regularly face difficulties when trying to return to school to finish their education. There is a pervasive reluctance to readmit formerly incarcerated youth into general education schools. Why do states, including New Jersey, persist in their denial of re-enrollment into general education programs? Common justifications offered by school officials for the reluctance to re-enroll formerly incarcerated youth are that the students are harder to manage and pose a safety risk. Many of the officials believe that re-enrolling formerly incarcerated youth to their schools will negatively affect their truancy statistics, graduation rates, and standardized testing scores. However, without actual proof that this would be the case for every child, schools are heavily relying on a negative attitude that all students who have spent time in a juvenile detention facility are the same.

Negative assumptions, about a formerly incarcerated youth’s abilities, are detrimental because they severely narrow the chances of success of that youth and increase their chances of returning to prison. Formerly incarcerated youth, upon release are in an especially vulnerable position socially, economically, and educationally. Because of the interruption in their education and the barriers to re-enrollment posed by these negative assumptions, about 43% of formerly incarcerated youth do not return to school at all after they are released. Youth who do not complete their education suffer collateral effects to their future earning power however; formerly incarcerated youth who do not finish school also suffer a higher chance of being re-arrested.

In order to comply with the state school compulsion laws, schools that have denied re-enrollment to formerly incarcerated youth often refer them to alternative educational programs or home instruction. Alternative education is defined differently in every state but in New Jersey it is defined as educational activities or programs that fall outside of the traditional kindergarten to 12th grade curriculum. In other words, the programs have the discretion to use any methods or principles best suited to teach the children in their programs as long as the students are capable of meeting the states standards. There has been a lot of discourse on the value of the education received in alternative programs generally but the effectiveness of the programs really depends on the state and district in which the alternative program is located. In New Jersey, putting a child in an alternative educational program usually means the child will be put in an alternative school, which is literally another school in its own location. Often these schools have a stated purpose to serve students in its district who are having difficulties with discipline, academics, or attendance. Essentially, all the students’ deemed “problem children” are sent to one building to learn, usually formerly incarcerated youth and suspended students.

In New Jersey, the law does not require that either the student or the parent agree with the decision to place the child in an alternative educational program. Additionally, there is no mechanism in place for the parent or child to be heard on their concerns regarding the placement. This leaves the formerly incarcerated youth, and his/her parent, without a way to challenge the placement, rendering them voiceless. In fact, the only existing recourse is to drop out of school entirely. The only other students who are subjected to being put into alternative education involuntarily are students who are being suspended for 10 days or more. These students, however are entitled to a formal hearing where they can argue against the things they are being charged with by the fourteenth amendment and New Jersey case law. I would argue that that denial of re-enrollment in general education to formerly incarcerated youth constitutes a de-facto suspension, which would require the schools to afford them the same due process protections – a formal hearing.

We cannot allow the pipeline to continue. What I propose with a hearing for formerly incarcerated youth is a remedy for the problem, not a solution. The minority children of our country are being criminalized early on and disproportionately for behaviors that used to be addressed in school. A hearing only gives those children already in the juvenile justice system a way to return to general education, it does nothing to slow or stop the amount of children who come into contact with the system in the first place. The best way to curb the influx of students who have this problem is to seriously begin working on and thinking of solutions to the “school-to-prison-pipeline”.