Efforts are underway in Escambia County to address what’s known as the "school-to-prison pipeline." The issue was the subject of a panel discussion on Monday, Aug. 31 at Franco’s Restaurant, 523 E. Gregory St., Pensacola.
The ‘school-to-prison pipeline” refers to the policies and practices that push the nation's schoolchildren, especially those most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
“The school to prison pipeline is the unfortunate and unexpected outcome of instituting zero tolerance disciplinary measures in schools,” said Paula Montgomery, education chair for the League of Women Voters of the Pensacola Bay Area. The league has teamed with the ACLU of Northwest Florida to host the panel discussion of the school-to-prison pipeline issue.
“If you have zero tolerance, then the child is more likely to be suspended and even arrested. And, so they miss time in school and consequently don’t graduate and are set up for life with a bad record and very little prospects.”
The situation is compounded if the youth is arrested and goes through the judicial system, and is incarcerated during the formative stage of their life. Montgomery says unfortunately the scenario is all too common in Escambia County.
“Escambia County has a record we’re not proud of,” Montgomery said. “The state average for juveniles incarcerated is 255 per 100,000. In Escambia county, it’s 890 per 100,000; that’s almost 4 times the state rate and the national rate is about the same as the state rate. So we are not doing well as far as incarcerating juveniles is concerned.”
Keyontay Humphries, regional organizer with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida, agrees that the school to prison pipeline is very real and present in our community.
“And when you look across the pipeline, not just at the school segment but all the way at the deep end, Escambia continues to lead the country per capita in the number of children who are incarcerated,” Humphries said.
And, within the Escambia School District, Humphries points out that there are roughly 2,000-3,000 students who are affected by harsh school discipline. Escambia was one of five north Florida school districts named in a 2012 complaint by the Southern Poverty Law Center for the racial disparities in their disciplinary policies and practices.
Humphries has been working with ACLU and the Escambia Youth Justice Coalition to bring about changes to those policies to make them less harsh. In recent years, the district has established a discipline matrix, in an effort to ensure fairness in punishment regardless of race or school. Another positive initiative is implementation of the Civil Citation Program.
But, according to Humphries, there’s work still to be done on that front.
“As the rest of the state is moving toward lending young people who commit misdemeanors three opportunities to engage in the program before an arrest is made. But, also, there’s work to be done because we’re not seeing efficient or effective utilization within the (Escambia) sheriff’s department.”
On the other hand, the Pensacola Police Department has had success with the program, which is why Chief David Alexander III was invited to take part in the panel discussion. Also, invited to share their success story was Mary Beth Jackson, Superintendent of Schools for the Okaloosa County School District. Okaloosa, also named the SPLC complaint, has taken steps to eliminate out-of-school suspension.
“And folks might think, wow, that’s crazy,” Humphries said. “But in fact, just about sixty miles down the road; young people aren’t suspended out of school anymore. They (Okaloosa) keep kids in the classroom and what that means for test scores, graduation rates, classroom instruction and the benefits of simply being in the classroom.” On the flip side, is being sent home, where they can play video games, etc.
Others on the panel included Circuit Judge Ed Nickinson and former youth Public Defender Mary McMcDaniel, who will talk about the judicial side of the issue.
Amir Whitaker from SPLC was asked to provide an update on the complaint filed three years ago with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights).
And, UWF economist Rick Harper was invited to talk about the economic impact of the school-to-prison pipeline.
Harper says the cost of incarceration is enormous on every level.
“If you just take the annual cost that’s reported in the budget of running our jail and detention centers, it comes out to (what) over $30,000 per inmate per year,” Harper said. “And, of course, there are the issues of who ends up in prison, why are they there, what does it do to their future earning prospect and how does their family get by without them.”
As an example of what could be done, Harper says an increased use of technology, such as electronic ankle bracelets, might be a better alternative to incarceration.
For those who were not able to attend the panel discussion on the 'school-to-prison pipeline" issue, organizers say in the coming months there will be more public conversations aimed at getting the community to think differently about solutions to the problem.