Managing Our Blind Spot: The Role of Bias in the School-to-Prison Pipeline

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Laura R. McNeal

For decades, we have witnessed the increased criminalization of our nation’s youth, especially youth of color and students with disabilities, through the implementation of “zero tolerance” policies and overly harsh school disciplinary practices. Instead of improving school safety, these practices have blurred the lines between school discipline and school safety, pushing students out of school and into the juvenile justice system. Perhaps most troubling and relevant are the concerns expressed in the post-Ferguson era regarding allegations of inappropriate and excessive use of force by school police on students. In schools all over the nation, school police carry and use tasers and pepper spray in situations that do not call for this type of weaponry. Every year there is a new series of local news articles highlighting students tased or pepper-sprayed for a little more than ‘clinching their fists’ or ‘taking an aggressive stance;’ ‘Some students have been tased or pepper-sprayed and mistaken for an aggressor, when they were, in fact, attempting to break up a fight.” These types of overly harsh school disciplinary practices and excessive use of force are imposed more frequently on African American and Latino students, than their white peers. This disparity is largely due to the failure to address the influence of explicit and implicit biases in school disciplinary decisions and the continued use of draconian school disciplinary practices.

This article will highlight the intersection of explicit and implicit bias and the school-to-prison pipeline and propose the adoption of a Federal School Disciplinary Law to address the racial disparities in school disciplinary sanctions. I argue that implicit racial bias negatively influences school disciplinary decisions resulting in a disproportionate number of African Americans issued disciplinary sanctions. Part I will discuss the evolution of the school-to-prison pipeline (e.g. zero tolerance policies, criminalizing normal adolescent behavior, lack of youth developmental competence among school resource officers, and the militarization of schools). Part II will provide an overview of the role of explicit and implicit bias in the development and perpetuation of the school-to-prison pipeline. Part III will discuss federal and state responses to the school-to-prison pipeline. Part IV concludes with a proposal for the adoption of a Federal School Disciplinary Law designed to eradicate the school-to-prison pipeline through a tiered system of evidenced based school disciplinary practices, a school-community task force, mandatory implicit bias training for all school personnel, and various other targeted interventions.

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