SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) - More than one in four Utah children encounter the Juvenile Justice system before they turn 18. A new report, published by The University of Utah and Utah Voices for Children, shows students of color are affected more often.
Kaleb Winston is a student who says he experienced this disparity first-hand. In 2011, while waiting to go to work in the West High School cafeteria, Kaleb was approached by police officers and lead to a classroom. Once there, he was interrogated about tagging and gang affiliation.
“I got into the classroom and there was a bunch of brown kids, black kids, there were no white kids in there...There was so many cops in the room, I was overwhelmed, I didn't know what to do,” says Kaleb, who was just 14 years old when he was caught up in a gang sweep at West High, “I was shocked. The entire time I'm getting man-handled by police and I did nothing wrong. I didn't do anything.”
Anna Thomas is the Strategic Communications Specialist at the ACLU of Utah. She explains that this happens more often than people realize, and that their is a name for it.
“The school-to-prison pipeline is a phenomena in which we see kids being disciplined, over-disciplined in a school setting, to the extent that they actually get pushed out of school, and into the criminal justice system,” says Thomas.
This is what Kaleb said was happening to him. So with the help of the ACLU, Kaleb and his family filed a lawsuit.
“When we were approached by the family of Kaleb Winston relaying his instance of being caught up in a gang sweep, that rang some bells. This is actually what it looks like in action--police presence in school, over-criminalizing behavior, and in Kaleb's case, criminalizing behavior that didn't even happen,” says Thomas.
Kaleb’s story is just one of many. Experts says this phenomena can affect anyone. Due to school shootings across the nation, there are now more officers in schools, and zero tolerance policies. Zero tolerance policies require schools to hand down consistent, specific, and often harsh punishment--such as suspension or expulsion--when students break certain rules. There is also something known as implicit bias.
“That implicit bias, what we think about the people in front of us, if they're different from us, that's really driving what the school-to-prison pipeline is all about,” says Thomas, “the numbers tell a very clear story there.”
Those numbers can be seen in Misbehavior or Misdemeanor: A Report on Utah’s School to Prison Pipeline. The study shows that overall, discipline is actually down. However, it shows that students of color are being disciplined more often than their Caucasian counterparts. The study says that 10.3% of Native American students face discipline. For all other students of color, the number is 5.6%, and for Caucasian students, the number is 2.6%.
Jeanetta Williams is the President of the NAACP Salt Lake and Tri-State Branch. She says, “It's not that the white students are not doing things were they could be disciplined, but they discipline the white students differently than they do the students of color.”
Williams says the NAACP has been working closely with community partners to address these issues.
“One of the things they're looking at is what are the ways to discipline children without suspending them, or calling the police,” she says.
One alternative is Peer Court, where students are tried and sentenced by a jury of their peers.
Henry Tran is a student and peer court member, who says, “A lot of these students deserve help and deserve better treatment than what they're getting….If we have a lot more people aware of programs like this, it indeed will help them avoid being incarcerated or being charged for minor or even major offenses.”
Experts say these programs help, but there is still a long road ahead.
“The school-to-prison pipeline is very complex, a lot of cultural phenomena play into it, and it's going to take awhile to dismantle it. I do think people being aware that it is occurring,and that implicit bias is fueling it, is a huge part of the initial solution,” says Thomas.
Kaleb Winston and his family agree that this is a complex issue. Their lawsuit was settled last year. As a result, there have been no more gang sweeps in schools. On top of that, laws were passed during the last legislative session that require new training for School Resource Officers.
“These kids deserve a future just like any other child. and i'm hoping that the training works...that's all we can hope, that's all we can hope for,” says Kevin Winston, Kaleb’s father.
ABC 4 reached out to Salt Lake City School District to learn about the many changes that have been made since the Winston settlement. They provided this statement:
“[Salt Lake City School District] has definitely implemented changes since the Winston settlement. We provided specific training for West High administrators, counselors, teachers, and staff on how to reduce excessive and exclusionary discipline, how to improve relationships between law enforcement and the school community, and on how to decrease the school-to-prison pipeline overall. We’ve extended those trainings to administrators district-wide on additional topics, including conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques, restorative practices, cultural competency, alternatives to the juvenile justice system, the impacts of adverse childhood experiences (i.e. trauma), mental health awareness. We also redefined the roles of SROs and administrators in the disciplinary process. SROs were removed from the school discipline process, and any violations related to the student code of conduct are now handled by administrators only.
As far as general steps to alleviate the school-to-prison pipeline, we’ve provided training for our SROs on restorative practices, conflict resolution, and social/emotional development of children and adults. We’ve also created an SRO Oversight Committee, which meets bi-annually to review school citations, arrests, and SRO interventions. Community members may bring their concerns to these meetings and have their concerns addressed. As a result of these combined efforts, our school-based citations have decreased from 503 in the 2013-2014 school year to 112 in the 2016-2017 school year.”
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