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Check out Denver Public Schools. They are working to break the school-to-prison pipeline by restoring justice, not just restoring order.  They do have school resource officers–often police–in the schools, as many other districts do.  But they haven’t stopped there.  Instead, they have formed three-way partnership between the schools, the police, and a social justice organization called Padres & Jóvenes Unidos.

This is work is different because it challenges White norms about behavior.  Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, along with the Denver PD, are there to help the school distinguish between what is a legitimate conflict between adults and kids or among kids themselves, from behavior that is genuinely criminal.  That is a major step, considering the tremendous authority that educators have to define the terms around kids’ behavior in school.

Furthermore, the work in Denver puts restorative justice at the center.  The have decided that when conflicts arise, the school will focus the kids on redemption and repairing the relationships that were broken.  This is far beyond what most schools do, seeking to reinstate order and obedience after a conflict.  If kids come to believe that school offers a respite from the danger and injustice on the block, there is a very good chance that they will protect that safe haven.

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Key and Peele put it out there. Cultural incompetence is a critical step in the school-to-prison pipeline.  Teachers are given the authority to use apparently neutral practices for maintaining order.  But that can turn quickly into power struggle, and the next step is getting kicked out.  See also Michelle Alexander on how police use that same authority in the war on drugs that she renames the New Jim Crow.

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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.

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