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Friday, July 19, 2024

Stop the Indiana pipeline!

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In the news recently, you may have read a lot about the Dakota Access Pipeline. In Indiana, we have an even more dangerous pipeline that is largely ignored: the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. Last week the United States Commission on Civil Rights Indiana Advisory Committee issued the results of a yearlong evaluation of the issue.

Its findings are alarming. Indiana’s incarceration rate is 13 percent higher than the national average. Indiana’s youth incarceration rate is 25 percent higher than the national average. Despite a decreasing youth incarceration trend in Indiana, the state’s decrease of 22 percent is significantly lower than the 37 percent national decline in youth incarceration. 

The school-to-prison pipeline is the strong relationship between school discipline and incarceration. Students who are part of the criminal justice system have increasingly been placed there as a result of school punishments, which places them at high risk for dropping out and ultimately ending up in prison. 

The Indiana K-12 school system fuels the pipeline not only by turning many normal behaviors of youth into criminal records, but also by removing children from schools and the benefits of instruction. One result of these removals is drastically decreased graduation rates for these students. African-American boys and girls and all children with disabilities are at the highest rates of risk. While this is a national problem, Indiana has the dubious honor of the nation’s second highest African-American male out-of-school suspension rate and the fourth highest rate of out-of-school suspensions for African-American girls.

Some of you reading this will quickly think of a range of reasons why these disparities exist: no home training, poor parenting, too much sugar, etc., but the committee found otherwise. Drawing on the testimony of experts, such as professor Russell Skiba at Indiana University Bloomington, the committee concluded that biased disciplinary practices in the classroom and school administration best explained these disparities. Skiba testified to the committee that research data consistently shows the disparities are not attributable to higher rates of disruptive or other misbehaviors. Instead, he noted the disparities result from different individual and institutional responses to the same or similar conduct.

In short, a student’s identity can have as much to do with school discipline as the student’s behavior. It seems that, much like the criminal justice system, the educational system interprets and responds based on who you are and not just what you did. Some of these drastic racial disparities can be attributed to stereotyping and racial prejudice or explicit bias. Part of the results, though, flow from something called implicit bias, which comes from deeper subconscious ideas. These psychological feelings influence the different ways we respond to different people.

One study cited by the committee makes this point abundantly clear. A group of teachers were given student names and a range of behaviors and asked questions about how to discipline students who engaged in the behaviors. Unbeknownst to the teachers, the names given were used as proxies for racial identity and were selected based on their association with racial identity. Three types were used: those routinely connected with African-Americans; those routinely associated whites, and those that could be associated with either. Study results showed that teachers most harshly disciplined students with names associated with African-American identity. The next most harshly disciplined students were those with names that could be associated with either group, and the least harshly disciplined students were those whose names were primarily associated with white identity. In each case, the student’s behaviors were the same. The only difference was the student’s name. While the study used fictitious behaviors and students, it makes a very real point. African-American school children in Indiana are being funneled toward prison through school disciplinary practices that punish African-American girls and boys more harshly for the same behavior in which their white counterparts engage.

Knowing this, I encourage everyone to review the committee’s findings and recommendations at usccr.gov/pubs. Find the report by searching “Civil Rights and the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Indiana. Then follow the lead of the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters to raise your voice and mobilize your body to stop this devastating pipeline that runs from Indiana schools to Indiana prisons. 

Carlton Waterhouse is a professor of law and Dean’s Fellow at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.

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