Tyler Crea / Lantern photographer
A panel discussion concluded that the solution to keeping students out of the juvenile criminal system is to change the way schools handle punishment.
The main focus of the five-member panel of education-community members Tuesday at the School to Prison Pipeline discussion at the Moritz College of Law was to find a way to prevent students from becoming “problem students.”
John Aeschbury, lead organizer of Building Responsibility, Equality and Dignity, began the panel by saying that in Columbus schools, the problem is “not a policy issue, it’s a practice issue.”
Aeschbury said that in the 2009-10 school year, there were 4,262 out-of-school suspensions stemming from truancy issues, even though this is not the punishment recommended in the schools’ handbook. This is not only counter-intuitive but also contributes to gang activity, Aeschbury said.
“Now think about that for a second. The penalty for skipping school is to be thrown out of school,” Aeschbury said. “People in the field of juvenile justice and delinquent prevention identify two risk factors that drive people to gangs at school and at home: inconsistent harsh discipline and low affection. And if out-of-school suspension isn’t the definition of inconsistent harsh discipline, I don’t know what is.”
Michelle Lambert, a Franklin County public defender, represents students in court after they have been indicted. She said the trouble is that these students often are identified as “problem students” and they later will be reprimanded for minor infractions that other students would not be punished for, and this has serious consequences.
“Chronic truancy, which is generally when they have 15 or more (missed) school days in a year,” Lambert said. “Generally these children have no record, they come to court, they are homeless, they have no transportation … or they don’t show up to court and they end up in jail, which is horrifying for children who are 12 to 14 years old.”
Sarah Biehl, a lawyer with the Ohio Poverty Law Center, represents those who are in poverty in the legal system. She said suspensions and expulsions are becoming less of a last-resort measure and more common as schools implement zero-tolerance policies.
“We need to stop using suspension and expulsion as a primary means of school discipline. It needs to be reserved for only the most serious safety incidents,” Biehl said. “It’s not that we shouldn’t discipline kids; we need to find a better way to discipline them and the way to start is you have to have schools create school-wide preventative practices.”
Lauren McGarity, CEO and superintendant of WinWin Academy, drew upon her experience in operating a school system in prisons and outside them to help assist incarcerated adults transition into lawful lifestyles. She said they purposely hire convicted felons who have been rehabilitated to help make the message more clear to those in these programs.
McGarity said she thinks schools should revamp their discipline systems to discipline with the goal of teaching students something rather than doling out punishments. She said using only punishments can create a “them and us” problem and there has been a loss in the sense of community that is required to keep people on the right track.
“There is a difference between discipline, which is like learning something, and punishment. I think a lot of our traditional schools and traditional systems tend to have a norm where kids are punished and by virtue of that punishment you’ve got a ‘them and us,'” McGarity said. “And somewhere along the line we lost touch with the premise of the community, and the idea that the school is an extension of the community.”
Tabitha Woodruff, a graduate student in law, was part of the 132-member audience in the Saxbe Auditorium. She said she was home-schooled before high school and when she got to the public school system, she was shocked to see how punishment was handled in a group setting. She said she sees how schools funnel students into the prison systems and that it needs to be changed.
“If we want to reduce prison populations, we need to start in schools,” Woodruff said.
As a member of the Justice for Children Clinic, a Moritz clinic that ensures children and their rights are taken seriously,she said she hopes to “represent the sometimes ‘forgotten’ children” in the legal system and generally advocate for children while still in school.
One point the panel made was that many disciplinary problems in schools affect students from every demographic, but that the school-to-prison pipeline itself is most likely to affect students of color, namely African-American and Latino-American students.
John Dues has been involved with several charter schools and currently is the school director of the Columbus Collegiate Academy, an East-side school that serves a mostly-colored community where about 85 percent of students qualify for free-lunch programs. He said much of the inconsistency among schools’ punishments is because of the chaos found in schools and that providing structure is one way to combat the chaos.
“The schools that we’re describing, in a lot of cases, are chaotic, and when you have chaos in school, there’s gonna be a lot of inconsistency,” Dues said. “There are fights in schools from time to time and sometimes the kid will get sent right back to your room and sometimes they would be suspended out of school.”
Nikki Baszynski, another graduate student in law and organizer of the panel, said she was happy with the way the discussion went and the fact that the panelists had such diverse backgrounds. She said she thinks it’s interesting that the achievement gap affects everyone but since the school-to-prison pipeline specifically affects only certain students, it is often an overlooked problem and wonders why more is not being done about it.
“Everyone knows the problem, everyone knows the solutions,” Baszynski said. “Why is it not being fixed?”