Stopping the School-to-Prison Pipeline
“My daughter was expelled from 7th grade for talking during lunch.”
“My child was suspended for 10 days for looking out the window.”
POWER-PAC parents launched their first citywide campaign in 2004 out of their own experiences with their children in Chicago’s low-income African American and Latino neighborhoods. Children are suspended in schools at an alarming rate; they attend schools where prison-like atmospheres prevail (at the time 82% of the students didn’t have recess and many were not even allowed to talk during lunch), and parents are told their children starting kindergarten are already trailing their white and middle-class counterparts.
The goal of the Elementary Justice Campaign is to break the cycle of criminalization of low-income youth of color by eliminating unnecessarily punitive discipline policies and practices in Chicago’s public elementary schools. POWER-PAC parents see their families and communities experiencing what the Children’s Defense Fund calls the “cradle-to-prison pipeline”. Children are discouraged in schools, drop out in large numbers by 9th grade, have limited opportunities to overcome poverty, and, too often, end up in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
The campaign has made immense progress. Just last year, POWER-PAC along with its partners won major changes to the Chicago Public Schools Student Code of Conduct: ending suspensions of 2nd grade and younger; reducing expulsions for 5th grade and younger; and banning group punishments such as the practice of “silent lunch” where youngsters were not able to talk during lunch!
Previously, the campaign won the reduction in the maximum number of days a student can be suspended out of school from 10 days to 5 days and the re-write of the discipline code to shift the district’s discipline philosophy from one of “zero tolerance” to a “restorative justice” approach.
Additionally, POWER-PAC has leveraged hundreds of thousands of dollars for restorative justice programming, including support for parent-led Peace Centers in Chicago schools, which are based on restorative justice practices. Also, through the campaign, more than 639 parents have been trained in restorative justice practices and values.
COFI and POWER-PAC also released the “Parent-to-Parent Guide: Restorative Justice in the Chicago Public Schools”.
Elementary Justice Campaign in the News
- In Chicago Public Schools, African-American males, though representing only 23% of the school population, represented 48% of suspensions and 57% of expulsions.
- In a series of community forums hosted by POWER-PAC, 37% of participating parents had had a child suspended and more than 2 out of 3 reported that they were not notified appropriately of the suspension.
- Students who have been suspended are three times more likely to drop out by the 10th grade than their peers that have never been suspended.
- A child who has been suspended is more likely to commit a crime or be incarcerated as an adult.
- End out-of-school suspensions, except in the case of serious threats to student safety.
- Reinstate recess and breaks, including more physical education in school day.
- Implement violence prevention programs and programs based on the philosophy of restorative justice.
- Provide training on discipline policies to parents, school staff, and administrators and provide information on school discipline policies in a more parent- friendly format.
- Provide school discipline data school-by-school and involve parents in oversight and accountability in creating and reviewing discipline policies.
- POWER-PAC Recommendations for Police in Schools
Parent leaders first presented their recommendations to the Chicago Public School Board of Education in 2004. Michael Scott was Board President and, in 2005, he committed to support parents and fund parent-led research. In the next year, more than 160 parents came to three community forums, providing data about their experiences with school discipline, culminating with the release of the Stopping the Downward Spiral for Our Children – Redirecting the School-to-Prison Pipeline report.
CPS also supported POWER-PAC leaders trips to Minneapolis and Los Angeles to learn about restorative justice and peace-keeping efforts taking place in elementary schools there. The first changes were made to the CPS Student Code of Conduct in 2006. Parents won funding and opened the first parent-led Peace Center in an elementary school. Since then more than half a million dollars has supported parent-led restorative justice programs in schools.
In 2007, the CPS Student Code of Conduct was rewritten to replace “zero tolerance” with a philosophy of “restorative justice” with alternative options to using overly punitive discipline. Pre-K and kindergartners were excluded from out-of-school suspensions and mandates to call the police for certain behaviors were removed. Each year since this victory, the Code has been revamped to include more support for “restorative justice.”
COFI published POWER-PAC’s Parent-to-Parent Guide to Restorative Justice in the Chicago Public Schools in 2010, providing peer-to-peer training to over 600 parents on their rights, the practice and philosophy of restorative justice, and how to push for it in their local schools.
POWER-PAC was appointed to the Council of State Government Justice Center’s Discipline Consensus project in 2012, informing federal guidelines on school discipline released in 2014 by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice to reduce racial disparities in school discipline and encourage the use of positive discipline approaches. A POWER-PAC leader testified in Washington, D.C. at a Congressional briefing on her work as a Peacemaker in Chicago schools.
More major changes in the Code of Conduct were passed in the summers of 2012 and 2014. Now, suspension may only be used as a “last resort” and the maximum a student can be suspended is 5 days (reduced from 10). Students in preschool through 2nd grade cannot be suspended and POWER-PAC won a ban on group punishment, including silent lunch which was used to punish entire student bodies in some schools. Mandatory expulsions are eliminated for students in 5th grade and younger and, also in 2014, POWER-PAC and its partners won the citywide release of discipline data to improve accountability and passed a similar law at the state level.