The US Senate and numerous cities are holding hearings on efforts to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. Excessive and disproportionate use of suspension keeps students of color out of school, stigmatizing them as nascent criminals, an early step in the mass incarceration discourses that Michelle Alexander (2010) calls “the new Jim Crow.”
Two groups of young people enter the pipeline via school: students of color and students with disabilities. African-American students are suspended and expelled at 3.5 times the rate of their white counterparts (United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2006). Students with disabilities—especially in the categories of “emotionally disturbed” and “other health impaired”—are suspended more than their peers without such labels (Krezmien, Leone, & Achilles, 2006). And at the intersection of race and disability, students of color are classified as emotionally disturbed at far higher rates than White students (Artiles & Bal, 2008; Harry & Klingner, 2006; Hosp & Reschly, 2004; Nunn-Makepace, 2011; Osher, Woodruff, & Sims, 2002). Hence, those students at the greatest risk for being suspended are African-American students regarded as having emotional disturbance (Fenning et al., 2012; Krezmien, et al., 2006; Skiba et al., 2011). They are suspended and expelled at 13.43 times the rate of the general population of students (Krezmien, et al., 2006; United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, 2006).
We are also in the immediate aftermath of the killings in Newtown, CT. As with Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora, and other massacres before them, gun control and mental health become intertwined themes in the public reckoning with tragedy. The main thrust of the mental health thread is about screening, identifying, and then treating potential killers, and often, using schools as the venue to do so.
Inclusive leaders find that one of their greatest challenges is helping their schools to work with students regarded as acting disorderly, or having emotional or behavioral disorders. In a recent study, superintendents, special education directors, and principals in five districts in Central New York who have been previously identified as inclusive leaders are interviewed and observed to document the discourses they promote in meeting this challenge. They employ the tenets of Response to Intervention (RTI) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) as systems that will help advance that work. In particular, they believe that RTI/PBIS can help them affect a shift from dealing with disorderly behavior as a discipline matter to dealing with it as a therapeutic process.
The shift builds on disciplinary codes of conduct that establish certain behaviors as normal. Thus, inclusion efforts focus on restoring students to compliant behavior. In so doing, the leaders oversee the development of intricate systems of data analysis and control that emphasize diagnosing students, rather than looking at adults or the system as a whole. These systems privilege psychopathological discourses over other possible ways of understanding the phenomenon of disorder in schools, such as institutional racism, classism, or homophobia.
Indeed, at its apotheosis, RTI/PBIS can replace the exclusionary reasoning that a student is too delinquent to include with the equally stigmatizing logic that s/he is too ill to keep in school. Thus, a discourse that medicalizes student difference squeezes out liberatory discourses that may be available to inclusive leaders. At the present time, when current efforts to break the school-to-prison pipeline focus on replacing excessive discipline with inclusive pedagogy, this study may serve as a caution not simply to replace one stigmatizing system with another.