Disciplining Juveniles Without Damaging Consequences

Some aspects of our public schools such as the use of poorly-trained Student Resource Officers (SROs) and out-of-school suspensions can create an environment that feels more like a prison than an educational institution. It is important to be able to discipline our youth without putting them on the path to future criminal offenses and jail time. 

Produced and Edited by Matthew Santangelo 

For some children, a prison cell and a classroom aren’t that different

By Matthew Santangelo

School can be a scary place for many children, particularly in public schools that employ Student Resource Officers. SROs in school settings can come off like prison guards and interactions with them that result in suspensions can feel like solitary confinement.

SROs and school safety practices have been put in place in an attempt to help students stay in line, but in a number of cases, students just end up becoming increasingly frustrated with the situation.

Out-of-school suspensions have been shown to be an ineffective form of punishment as well as a potential means for children to become involved with bad crowds. When children are suspended at home, many times their parents are not able to stay home with them because they have to work. This leaves the children susceptible to wandering the streets, and particularly in low-income, high-crime areas, running into the wrong people who could eventually get them into trouble.

Once a student gets suspended, it often starts a cycle of misbehavior, which leads to more suspensions, and more opportunities for criminal involvement.

“As you can imagine, if you’re not in school… there’s more opportunities for you to be exposed and interact with… opportunities to get in trouble,” Dr. Blaire Cholewa from the University of Virginia said. “I think it’s true for teenagers [of] all ages, of all backgrounds.”

Student Resource Officers have also been a large topic of debate in recent years. Although there are many instances where SROs do genuinely serve to help the students, there have been many cases of SROs mistreating students, which can lead to issues down the line, such as more disciplinary actions that will lead to the vicious cycle described earlier that can eventually result in imprisonment.

According to Lt. Carlos Camacho of the Nashua Police Department, many of the issues with SROs come from officers who have not been properly trained to handle juveniles. Many times regular police officers are just thrown into the position. He feels that putting legislation into place that will ensure that SROs are properly equipped with the tools to deal with children and young adults correctly will have a major positive impact on the Student Resource Officer as a position.

“You have to have the right officers in those positions in the schools,” Lt. Camacho said. “And you have to continue having those mentoring roles for kids... These kids need to have those positive role models, especially the ones that are in the inner city where they have lower socio-economic systems.”

Lt. Camacho is also the Northeastern Region Chair of a non-profit organization that is trying to help keep children out of prison known as the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ).

The Coalition for Juvenile Justice, according to their website, “educates and informs federal policymakers on state and local juvenile justice issues.”

Lt. Camacho describes the CJJ as a way for those fighting for juvenile justice around the United States to come together and share what is working and what is not in order to have the best possible wide-spread outcome. This is primarily accomplished through regular national conferences held by the CJJ.

For example, if Lt. Camacho’s police department has started a policy that they see has been working, he will bring it to other board members of the CJJ so they can try to implement it themselves. One instance of this is that the Nashua Police Department requires their SROs to have extensive training before they can work in schools, so he pushes for this to be more commonplace across the country. 

The organization has indirectly helped many juveniles through its policy reforms and its spread of useful information. In fact, they have an entire section of their organization that is made up of young people, many of whom have been through the justice system and come out on top. This is known as the CJJ’s Emerging Leaders Committee (ELC).

The ELC holds regular Youth Summits that bring young people together to collaborate on ways to better juvenile justice, much like the CJJ’s conferences. The difference here is that the young people are closer to the experience and have the potential to be aware of more current issues and solutions.

Through this aspect of the organization, the CJJ has turned once-convicted juveniles into leaders of the fight against the school-to-prison pipeline.

Kristen Powell is one of the members of the ELC whose life has been changed by maintaining her membership in this committee.

Powell entered the justice system early on in her life because of some seemingly miniscule runaway and truancy charges. She said that there was no one watching out for her in school so she would simply leave with her friends during the day.

Since then, she has been trying to lend a helping hand to others who are in a similar position to the one she once was. She is able to do this effectively as a board member of the ELC and through various positions she has held as a youth leader in multiple organizations since she was released from incarceration. Participating in the fight for juvenile justice is what keeps her going through the day.

Powell stated her admiration for youth positions in juvenile justice organizations, “I think that if there was more…opportunities for youth to have these childhood positions like I had, like a survivor leader position, or a...youth partnership position or something like that, then it would be easier for the youth to, like, pull themselves up out of those systems or out of those trenches because they have something that gives them hope to want to do better or want to be better.”

Another member of the ELC is the Community Advocate in Minnesota, Essence Blakemore. Although she has never personally been incarcerated, she said she has felt the impacts of the school to prison pipeline, having been negatively impacted by school suspensions herself, and she is close with other youths who have had negative encounters with the justice system. For these reasons, she is very passionate about the issue of juvenile justice, and more specifically, the school-to-prison pipeline.

“I think [the ELC] is more or less an outlet because the thing is I still know people everyday that are being affected by the criminal justice system. So, I can’t even say like what I do every single day is something that’s like, the end all...but for me, I feel like something beats nothing because a lot of people are, like, upset about what goes on and they don’t try to, like, do anything.”

One drawback of the CJJ, according to Lt. Camacho, is that it is in fact a non-profit organization. This means that the organization relies entirely on donations to survive and function. This could potentially limit their reach, but this has not stopped them from making a difference in the lives of children across the country.

intervention Can Break the School to Prison Pipeline

Certain school disciplinary practices like out-of-school suspension can cause students to start into a cycle of misbehavior and punishment. If the situation escalates badly enough, it can be the first step in the school to prison pipeline. An effective technique in preventing this is to intervene with a student that is acting out so they can be helped instead of falling down the wrong path.

Produced and Edited by Matthew Santangelo


The school to prison pipeline, explained

Discipline and the School-To-Prison Pipeline

How Can We Stop The School-To-Prison Pipeline?

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