Two days ago, I wrote about a Mesa school district program that gets truant students in front of a justice of the peace. The goal is to get them on the straight and narrow. But the outcome is, necessarily, more misdemeanor convictions.

Last night, I read a disturbing Washington Post article that analyzed data from schools in that city and its suburbs. It found that African American students are disciplined far more often than other children.

Read the whole story here.

The story, by reporter Donna St. George, opens:

“Across the Washington area, black students are suspended and expelled two to five times as often as white students, creating disparities in discipline that experts say reflect a growing national problem. … Experts say disparities appear to have complex causes. A disproportionate number of black students live below the poverty line or with a single parent, factors that affect disciplinary patterns. But experts say those factors do not fully explain racial differences in discipline. Other contributing factors could include unintended bias, unequal access to highly effective teachers and differences in school leadership styles.”

Daniel J. Losen

As the story indicates, the challenge of equalizing discipline is a national one. So much so that a joint effort of the Departments of Justice and Education was announced last July to combat the school-to-prison pipeline.

According to the Department of Education press release:

“Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder today announced the launch of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, a collaborative project between the Departments of Justice and Education that will address the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ and the disciplinary policies and practices that can push students out of school and into the justice system. The initiative aims to support good discipline practices to foster safe and productive learning environments in every classroom.”

The Post story explains the problematic nature of many of the suspendable offenses, which are labeled “soft” infractions—disrespect, defiance, insubordination, disruption and foul language. Some offenses, the reporter notes, allow administrators “significant latitude in how they respond.”

Discipline rates in DC schools (click for larger version)

And things really have changed in schools since many of us were kids: “Suspensions have surged nationally since the 1970s, fueled in part by a zero-tolerance culture.”

“‘We associate getting kicked out of school with something really really bad, but there has been a sea change in recent years in what kids get suspended for and how often we use suspension,’ said researcher Daniel J. Losen, who recently authored a report on suspension and disparities for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.”

Russell Skiba

The disparities are troubling, the reporter says, especially for parents who may already be suspicious of an unbalanced ledger in school administration:

“Lea Collins-Lee, an African American parent in Prince George’s [County], said her eldest son was first suspended a decade ago for placing an extra dessert on his cafeteria tray. Last month, her youngest son, now 18, was suspended for five days after a tussle that she said he did not start.

“‘I really do think it’s harder for black kids,’ she said. ‘If they get into a fight, it’s a gang fight. If white kids get into a fight, it’s a disagreement.’”

For those who suggest a suspension may be no big deal, a recent Texas study drew a stark line between school discipline and the likelihood of dropping out and ending up in the juvenile justice system. And as I noted Tuesday, a criminal record may be forever. (Here is another study examining disparities in the Virginia schools.)

In the Post article, a researcher answered in advance one of the questions many may have:

“‘It is not just a matter of kids coming from poverty,’ [Indiana University’s Russell] Skiba said. ‘Poor kids do get suspended more. But that does not explain why poor black kids get suspended more than poor white kids and why affluent black kids get suspended more than affluent white kids.’”

Angela Ciolfi

Donna St. George quotes another researcher, Angela Ciolfi of the Legal Aid Justice Center, which published the study of Virginia schools:

“I think people assume it has to be this way. [But], when schools pay attention to who gets in trouble and why, they find they are able to reduce misbehavior overall and also address the discipline gap.”

What do you think of this discipline gap? Do you see it in Arizona? And for those in the juvenile justice system, what do you think of the notion that wielding too much discipline in schools provides a gateway to the courthouse?

An intriguing story almost slipped by unnoticed yesterday. It is about a truancy program in the Mesa School District, which is Arizona’s largest.

The “no-nonsense” program provides a series of checks on student absence, which may culminate in a misdemeanor conviction.

You may read the whole story here.

As it explains:

“Truancy court is a no-nonsense year-old partnership between the Mesa Public Schools Safety and Security Department and East Valley justice of the peace courts … . Mesa, the largest school district in the state, has a long history of being the toughest on truants.”

Truancy is certainly a problem, but the story reminded me that having a criminal conviction may be a problem too. In fact, the “criminalizing” of youth behavior has grown so pervasive that it’s now got a label: The School to Prison Pipeline. And as we might guess, it most affects students who are poor or of color, or often both.

Justice of the Peace Dan Dodge talks to a woman and her daughter about truancy during a hearing at Highland Justice Court in Gilbert. (Deirdre Hamill/The Arizona Republic)

Have any lawyers had experience with this approach, in Mesa or elsewhere? As the steps toward a conviction escalate, are the students provided counsel? (Likely not, given the absence of jail time that is possible.) Are the juveniles advised of the meaning of accepting (or having imposed) a misdemeanor conviction? Do they have an inkling of how it will affect job and other opportunities, when they must indicate that they have been convicted of an offense?

In fact, dropping out of school is not a good thing, but could it ever be the better course? For those who are old enough to drop out of high school, could it be preferable to do that just before a conviction is levied? After all, a person may always go back and earn a GED. But you may never undo the conviction.

What do you think?