Thursday, December 20, 2012

Prof. Buckingham submits testimony to Senate subcommittee on school-to-prison pipeline

By Clinical Professor Samantha Buckingham

Senator Durbin (D-Ill.) held the first-ever U.S. Senate hearing on the ending the "school-to-prison pipeline." Senator Durbin is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights. The Senator defined the pipeline as a "gateway" out of school and into the criminal justice system that functions to rob children of their "fundamental right to education." In essence, many children with cases in juvenile delinquency court are there because of issues that arose in public school; instead of sending children to the principal's office for misbehavior, students are now removed from the educational environment entirely. Statistics reveal that students of color, students with disabilities, and LGBT youth bear the brunt of school disciplinary measures that funnel them into the delinquency system. According to the most recent date from the Office for Civil Rights, more than three million students were suspended from school at least once during the 2009-2010 school year. Seventy percent of the students arrested for an event arising at school were Black and Hispanic. Unfortunately, Black males who have diagnosed disabilities are the group most often suspended.

In my experience both as a public defender and as a juvenile advocate through my work as the co-director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Loyola's Center for Juvenile Law and Policy, I have represented many children who have been arrested at school. My testimony to Congress described how the school to prison pipeline impacted three of the clients I represented through my work in the juvenile justice clinic. Law students were involved in each one of these cases, researching and writing motions, meeting with the clients, investigating incidents at the schools, and arguing before the court. The stories I chose to share with the committee demonstrate a few important concerns (though not every concern) about the school-to-prison pipeline: 1) children are punished twice, 2) timing is important to intervention on behalf of children with special education needs, and 3) increased police presence and increased funneling of children to delinquency courts for incidents occurring at public school can have a negative, stigmatizing effect.

One client of ours at CJLP was arrested at 11 after fighting back against another child who was the sixth-grade class bully. When he came to court for an appearance, the client brought with him a backpack full of trophies and set off the metal detector. He wanted to show the judge that he was a good kid and a hard worker. Going to juvenile delinquency court was a scary, unfamiliar, and humiliating experience. He was a smart young man, with caring parents, and a history of depression. The teacher knew he was being bullied and the teacher broke up the incident when he occurred. My client was charged with a felony in juvenile delinquency court. The bully was not charged with anything. Both the bully and his parent did not want my client to face charges in court. Nonetheless, and despite the counseling services his parents had already set up for him, the District Attorney and the court both refused to dismiss the case. To me, this case is a great example of a case which should have been resolved in school and did not need to be referred to juvenile delinquency court. It is the school-to-prison pipeline in action.

Stay tuned for reforms discussed at the hearing such as eliminating out-of-school suspensions and replacing them with in-school suspensions.

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