Jacobs breaks down Florida’s “school-to-prison pipeline”

Published: February 22nd, 2010

Category: Events, Feature, News, Students

UF Law Professor Michelle Jacobs

UF Law Professor Michelle Jacobs

Less than 50 percent of black students graduate from high school in Florida, and a part of that can be attributed to the “school-to-prison pipeline,” Professor Michelle Jacobs said.

Jacobs, professor at UF Law, spoke on Wednesday about how big a problem the school-to-prison pipeline is for black students in an event sponsored by the Black Law Students Association and the UF chapter of the ACLU.

“The notion of school-to-prison pipeline is about a series of policies that create a system where children go directly from school into custody of whatever state they belong to as prisoners as opposed to anything else,” said Jacobs, noting that the issue is particularly bad in Florida.

There are four main policies or procedures that contribute to the end result: zero tolerance policies, juveniles being prosecuted as adults, problems in identifying and teaching special needs children and racism in the juvenile justice system, according to Jacobs.

Zero tolerance programs are put in place by many school districts, and young children with disciplinary problems are often sent to the juvenile justice system instead of the school handling their problems.

“Zero tolerance is this phrase that communities use to say, ‘We’re not going to take any kind of disruption in the school environment whatsoever. To the extent that there is a disruption, we’re going to have immediate sanctions, and the sanction is going to be severe,’” Jacobs said.

She said the policy often leads to five and six-year-old children getting picked up by the police for misbehaving in class. Eventually children are suspended or expelled and get behind in classes with no way to catch up, Jacobs said. This leads children from a very young age down the wrong path and sets the student up to fail, Jacobs said.

Jacobs was especially critical of zero tolerance programs because according to the FBI, juvenile crime is at its lowest level ever and has been since 2003, she said.

After zero-tolerance programs, children are more likely to be prosecuted as adults, which is pushing more out of schools and into prisons, Jacobs said.

She gave the example of 14-year-old black girl who pushed a hallway monitor in Texas. She was expelled, prosecuted for assault on a safety monitor and sentenced to incarceration. However, a 14-year-old white girl was charged with arson and only got probation, Jacobs said.

When this happens, the chips fall into place so the child cannot re-enter the school system to catch up, Jacobs said.

“We also know that the alternative schools for kids who have either been expelled or convicted of a crime do not get the same resources as the local school centers, and even they don’t get enough resources, but the alternative schools get even less,” Jacobs said. “So you’re sort of solidifying that this child will not be able to function in society unless they take a path toward criminality.”

Third, there are problems identifying children with special needs, Jacobs said. Many teachers will identify black students as special needs even though they are not, Jacobs said. This leads to them being put into special needs classes when they don’t need to be, which hurts everyone in the classes.

Jacobs said that Florida’s percentage of special needs children that are black and Hispanic is much higher than the national average. At least 60 percent of children in the juvenile justice system are identified as special needs children, Jacobs said.

The final piece to the puzzle is that black children are treated differently than white children once they are in the juvenile justice system, Jacobs said. Jacobs described “bootstrapping” as keeping more black children in the juvenile justice system by penalizing status offenses. Basically, these kids are kept in the system for doing something that would be legal if they were adults.

The Department of Justice made detaining a child for a status offense illegal, but Florida got around it by making the status offenses court orders, Jacobs said.

“So you tell that child, ‘OK, stop doing the thing that you’re doing. It’s making us all crazy; we don’t like it. I’m the judge; I’m going to sign an order telling you to stop that,’” Jacobs said. “The child gets released. The next time the child does that particular offensive thing –like the next day – what happens? It’s still a status offense, isn’t it? No, now it’s contempt of court, which is actionable, for which you can be detained and incarcerated.”