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Virginia Tech study provides new context on troubling school-to-prison-pipeline report

May 24, 2017

High School Hallway

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that an important step in Virginia Tech’s study was distinguishing between reports to law enforcement and actual involvement with the court system. The story was also changed to say that the Center for Public Integrity reported that Virginia was referring nearly 16 students per 1,000 to police or the courts. The original story incorrectly characterized this statistic. The story update also notes that it’s difficult to determine Virginia's exact rank using this data because every school, district, and state may interpret what is reported to law enforcement differently.

Virginia Tech researchers have found evidence that casts a new light on a troubling report card on Virginia public schools.

In the spring of 2015, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) released a study reporting that Virginia led the nation in sending students from schools to police or the courts, a trend often known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

“The policies and practices of many school systems may mean that what used to be considered basic disruptive behaviors in the schools, now can lead to court involvement.” said Gerard Lawson, the associate professor in Virginia Tech’s School of Education who led the research team. “Essentially, what used to earn a student in-school detention could now potentially result in criminal charges.”

When they learned about Virginia’s alarming rate of students entering the criminal justice system, Lawson and his colleagues proposed doing research on what factors led to student involvement in the pipeline and how those factors could be mitigated, with the support of Governor Terry McAuliffe’s Children’s Cabinet. An important first step was distinguishing between reports to law enforcement, as CPI had reported, and actual involvement with the court system.

The researchers launched the study in January 2016, drawing data from several state agencies, including the departments of Juvenile Justice, Education, and Criminal Justice Services.

“At the very outset we realized the numbers weren’t matching up,” said Lawson, who is also president-elect of the American Counseling Association. “We scoured the data between the Departments of Education and Juvenile Justice, matching localities, dates of birth, dates of offensives, types of offenses, and we realized that the number of students actually ending up in court was much lower than that first impression.”

There is a checkbox on a Department of Education tool gathering data about suspensions and expulsions which asked, “Was this reported to law enforcement?”

“In most cases, when the box was checked, it appears that it represented an informal report to law enforcement — an administrator running into the school resource officer in the hallway, for example, and mentioning that a student had been suspended.” Lawson said. “The ‘report’ may have gone no further than the officer responding, ‘Thanks—good to know.’ With a bit of semantic imprecision, that checkbox elevated Virginia’s numbers dramatically.”

The Center for Public Integrity reported that Virginia was referring nearly 16 students per 1,000 to police or the courts, based just on what was reported in that checkbox. “When we look at the official Juvenile Justice records to see who actually went to court from the schools, the number is actually 2.4 per 1,000”.

Because every school, district, and state may interpret what is reported to law enforcement differently, it’s difficult to know exactly where Virginia would rank among states in terms of sending its students into the criminal justice system. What is clear is that of all of the students who were included as “reported to law enforcement” in Department of Education records, only 14 percent of those students actually appeared before a juvenile intake officer.

But the story doesn’t end there, Lawson added. The research team found confirmation of two additional trends.

First, students with disabilities — defined broadly as students with physical limitations, and also those with emotional issues — were disproportionately more likely to be suspended or expelled.

Second, the data uncovered significant racial disparities, with African-American students disproportionately affected. African Americans account for 23 percent of the student population in Virginia, yet 49.4 percent of referrals to the juvenile courts from schools. These disparities begin at the school level, and are maintain, though not increased, through actual referrals to juvenile justice and involvement with the courts.

“Clearly we still have work to do,” said Lawson. “We need to better support teachers and school administrators, and we need to rethink discipline. Should a middle-schooler get arrested for flipping the bird at a teacher? The stakes are too high. A single suspension makes it less likely for a student to graduate from high school, and involvement with the Court system makes that less likely still. The repercussions can be lifelong.”

Lawson advocates for a restorative justice approach, which aims to keep conflicts from escalating. Restorative justice is designed to resolve issues among students before fights and arguments escalate, through structured programs designed to build community and resolve conflict. If students are involved in a fight in school, for example, this approach calls for a meeting with the student who was harmed, the aggressor, and a group of peers, to find a solution to the problem. In the instances when a student is suspended, restorative justice programs involve students and parents in a plan for reintegrating the student back into the school community.

“We need to do everything we can,” Lawson said, “to keep kids in classrooms and out of courtrooms.”

In addition to Lawson, the research team included Kami Patrizio, an assistant professor, and Yasuo Miyazaki, an associate professor, both in Virginia Tech’s School of Education. This project was supported by Award No. 2015-CK-BX-0007 awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.

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