Measuring the impact: Schools struggle from multiple angles with incarceration

Whether it's a parent or the student who have served time, schools see challenges


Editor's note: This story is the fourth in a series of pieces that examine the impact of a number of health and social issues on education planning, funding and operations.​ The previous entry, on poverty's impact on schools, can be found here.

Yasmine Arrington, 23, grew up with her mother and grandmother while her father was in and out of prison. As a black Washington, DC, native, Arrington grew up in a city with the highest incarceration rate in the country as a member of a race disproportionately represented in prisons and jails. Her mother died when she was a freshman in high school. Yet, still, she kept her sights set on college.

Arrington graduated from Elon University in North Carolina in 2015, five years after founding a scholarship program for children of incarcerated parents, ScholarCHIPS. When Arrington was researching funding opportunities for her own college expenses, she noticed a distinct lack of support for high schoolers in this vulnerable group.

And the group is not that small. As many as one in 14 children has had a parent serve time in prison or jail.

“Aside from my personal life experience, my primary motivation is to make people understand that we cannot blame a child or a young person for the things their parents did,” Arrington said in a prepared statement. “We shouldn’t put them in a box and assume that, ‘Yes, they’re going to get pregnant by the time they’re 16’ or ‘They’re going to drop out of school’ or that ‘They’re going to go to jail themselves, so there’s no sense in even investing in them.’”

Beyond helping children of incarcerated parents pay for college, a growing body of research supports helping these children throughout the K-12 system, limiting harsh discipline policies that disproportionately impact them, training teachers to recognize the underlying causes of certain behaviors and targeting the intergenerational nature of the school-to-prison pipeline.

When Jason Nance started travelling around the country for the American Bar Association as a member of a task force on reversing the school-to-prison pipeline, he was struck by the impact a suspension, expulsion or any kind of contact with the juvenile justice system can have on a child’s life. Nance is an associate professor of law and the associate director of the Center on Children and Families at the University of Florida. His time in town hall meetings, hearing from experts around the country, made him wonder why the nation spends so much money on the “back end,” funding incarceration costs, rather than investing in the “front end,” on preventative strategies within the education system.

That’s the topic of a July brief from the U.S. Department of Education. The department studied state and local expenditures on corrections and education between 1979-80 and 2012-13, finding spending on public schools doubled while spending on corrections quadrupled. The amount spent on P-12 education still dwarfs that of corrections  $534 billion to $71 billion  but looking only at how much states have increased spending per inmate or per student is illustrative.

Only New Hampshire and Massachusetts have increased per capita spending on corrections at a slower rate than they have increased per pupil spending on schools. Wyoming, West Virginia and South Dakota increased their state and local per capita spending on corrections at a rate that was 300% greater than the increase for per-pupil public education spending.

Yet spending more on education to keep young people out of the hands of the criminal justice system could save the country billions of dollars.

“We know investing in education works,” said Secretary of Education John King Jr., during a press call announcing the study. “Let’s do what works.”

Restorative justice offers one solution

Nance and co-author Sarah Redfield, a University of New Hampshire School of Law professor, highlight restorative justice programs in their paper for the American Bar Association.

Nance describes restorative justice as a philosophy that puts the relationships among members of the school community at the center of a student’s educational experience. It focuses on the harm resulting from student misbehavior, the root causes of that misbehavior and the needs of the victim and the perpetrator. By doing this, the restorative justice model attempts to hold students accountable for their actions, engage all parties, repair harm that was done and prevent future damage.

“The alternate model is to kick the student out,” Nance said. “They become behind, get stigmatized, frustrated  and there’s no good way to integrate the student back in.”

Students who are suspended, expelled or referred to the juvenile justice system are far more likely to have lower academic achievement, lower graduation rates and lower retention rates. While studies have shown black and Latino students do not misbehave at higher rates than their white peers, they are disproportionately kicked out of class and out of school. Once they leave, they are more likely to fall behind academically, which increases the likelihood they will take out their frustration by misbehaving, continuing the cycle.

Research also shows students who return to school from a stint in the juvenile justice system tend to be monitored more closely than their peers by teachers and school resource officers. Any bad behavior reinforces negative expectations and increases the chances of severe punishment.

That’s why Nance and Redfield’s policy recommendations include removing zero-tolerance policies from schools, eliminating the criminalization of student behavior that does not endanger others, supporting alternative disciplinary policies like restorative justice and providing training for school resource officers.

In Chicago Public Schools, a restorative justice policy has been on the books since 2006, in theory, but schools have struggled to get the funding to train teachers and really implement it. Walter Taylor, a national board-certified former eighth-grade science teacher, currently serves as the professional development facilitator for the Chicago Teacher’s Union. Through the Safe Schools Consortium, with grant funding from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Taylor helped lead an effort in restorative justice at three high schools in the city that provided training and support for two-and-a-half years.

Still, CPS has 517 district-run schools, and many will say the school-to-prison pipeline is alive and well. A big part of the issue, Taylor says, is an inability on the part of educators to separate the behavior from the child. He points to the iceberg theory  that there is a lot more going on than what is visible.

“We have to drill down to excavate what the real issue is,” Taylor said. And poverty factors in with trouble at home and incarceration. “We have to understand that, really, in order to understand and do something about the behavior.”

In his own classroom, Taylor took pride in creating a community with his students that created the space for students who were in and out of school because of suspensions or time in the juvenile justice system to re-enter. That reintegration opportunity is an important step in breaking a cycle of bad behavior. But it is often missing in schools.  

“Oftentimes when they do come back, they feel like they’re an outsider,” Taylor said.

A major element of restorative justice is creating the relationships Taylor cultivated so students who have made mistakes can still find a place among their peers. These techniques have been embraced by a growing number of districts nationwide. In Georgia, a recent legislative overhaul of the criminal justice system included education measures that require special training for people in the school discipline process. And the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) model has helped schools cut down on excessive discipline by reinforcing good behavior rather than focusing more heavily on punishing bad behavior.

Sons of incarcerated fathers a particular focus

This is important when it comes to educating sons of incarcerated fathers, in particular, given the ways they respond to the hardship. Anna Haskins, an assistant professor of sociology at Cornell University, shows the educational impact of paternal incarceration on children is evident as early as preschool. Haskins studies the effects of incarcerated fathers, in part, because they account for 91% of all incarcerated parents.

Using data from the Fragile Families study, Haskins looked at children whose fathers went to prison for the first time when they were between one and five years old. Controlling for a range of other factors, Haskins found paternal incarceration can be tied to a lack of non-cognitive readiness in boys, meaning they are less able to stay on task, pay attention and control their emotions. These behavioral problems, in turn, contributed to the boys’ placement in special education classes by the time they were nine years old.

“Even based on looking at kids with similar cognitive abilities,” Haskins said, “boys with incarcerated fathers are more likely to be put in special education classes.”

This, of course, has implications for later outcomes like high school graduation rates, college-going rates, and likelihood of contact with the criminal justice system. But it’s a problem if schools only start paying attention in middle or high school, when school leaders have historically become more preoccupied with the consequences of harsh school discipline.

“When you’re starting to intervene in adolescence, it’s sort of already too late,” Haskins said. That’s why she focuses on the youngest students and why more school districts should, too. “If you start thinking about interventions or have knowledge of these interventions early, we might be able to change children’s trajectories.”

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Filed Under: Higher Ed K12 Policy & Regulation
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