Two years ago the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) released a study reporting that Virginia led the nation in sending students from schools — 16 out or 1,000 — to police or the courts. That finding fueled demands to overhaul k-12 disciplinary practices to reduce the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Well, it turns out that those numbers were wildly inflated.
“When we look at the official Juvenile Justice records to see who actually went to court from the schools, the number is actually 2.4 per 1,000,” says Gerard Lawson, an associate professor at Virginia Tech’s school of education.
Lawson and his colleagues conducted the research to find what factors led to student involvement in the pipeline and how those factors could be mitigated, according to a Virginia Tech news story. Here’s what they found:
The researchers launched the study in January 2016, drawing data from several state agencies, including the departments of Juvenile Justice, Education, and Criminal Justice Services.
“At the very outset we realized the numbers weren’t matching up,” said Lawson, who is also president-elect of the American Counseling Association. “We scoured the data between the Departments of Education and Juvenile Justice, matching localities, dates of birth, dates of offensives, types of offenses, and we realized that the number of students actually ending up in court was much lower than that first impression.”
There is a checkbox on a Department of Education tool gathering data about suspensions and expulsions which asked, “Was this reported to law enforcement?”
“In most cases, when the box was checked, it appears that it represented an informal report to law enforcement — an administrator running into the school resource officer in the hallway, for example, and mentioning that a student had been suspended.” Lawson said. “The ‘report’ may have gone no further than the officer responding, ‘Thanks—good to know.’ With a bit of semantic imprecision, that checkbox elevated Virginia’s numbers dramatically.”
However, Lawson’s study did confirm two trends highlighted by the CPI study: students with disabilities were more likely to be suspended, and African-Americans, representing 23% of the student population in Virginia, accounted for 49.4% of the court referrals.
“We need to rethink discipline,” says Lawson. “Should a middle-schooler get arrested for flipping the bird at a teacher? The stakes are too high. A single suspension makes it less likely for a student to graduate from high school, and involvement with the Court system makes that less likely still. The repercussions can be lifelong.”
Bacon’s bottom line: Lawson should be commended for debunking the misinformation that Virginia is an outlier in the realm of school discipline. I always wondered about that claim — I never heard a logical explanation of why Virginia school officials supposedly referred so many more kids to law enforcement than their peers in other states. But when I wrote about the CPI research, I never thought to dispute it. Now we know why the numbers were so high.
However, I have to question one of Lawson’s insinuations. Middle-schoolers have been arrested for flipping the bird to their teachers? Really? If true, such actions are absolutely outrageous, and disciplinary procedures do need reform. But my “spidey sense” makes me suspicious. It would take a judge about two nano-seconds’ reflection to throw that out of court. I find it hard to believe that such a thing has ever happened. Perhaps Lawson was just using hyperbolic rhetoric, not to be taken literally. Or perhaps I’m just naive.
Returning to the main storyline… Let’s play a little parlor game, shall we? How much media attention will Lawson’s story get compared to the the Center for Public Integrity’s flawed report? Will the Center for Public Integrity ever correct its findings?
Update: The editors of the Center for Public Integrity offer an extended rebuttal of Lawson’s findings (and Bacon’s Rebellion’s reporting of those findings). You can read their comment here.
Update: Gerard Lawson has responded to my question about “flipping the bird,” defends his contention that it is very difficult to rank the states for law-enforcement referrals, and offers other observations. Read his comment here.