Statement: The School-to-Prison Pipeline in New Orleans
My name is Ellen Tuzzolo. I am a Youth Advocate for the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and a member of the Schools First Coalition, a group that envisions an educational system in New Orleans that does not funnel our children into detention centers and prisons. I am here to detail and offer solutions for three main problems with the current policies and practices of our schools that are rebuilding, in New Orleans, what we call the school to prison pipeline.
1) Our schools act as small military states, taking the school’s focus off of learning:
• Students complain of excessive search procedures including being required to remove shoes and undergarments. Even some elementary students go through metal detectors and have their tiny booksacks searched.
• As of January, the Recovery School District schools had one security guard to every 37 children as compared to a pre-storm ratio of one security guard to every 333 children.
• These practices are used disproportionately in our lowest performing schools. We have created a system where our students with special needs and our struggling students are being pushed into schools where they are far more likely to have continual contact with police.
2) Our schools are criminalizing and inappropriately punishing petty offenses while lacking alternatives to removal:
• Pre and post-Katrina the Juvenile Division reports that approximately 25-35 percent of all juvenile court referrals come from schools.
• Students as young as nine have been handcuffed in school, while some students have been handcuffed to tables and chairs, brutalized by police and security on school grounds, arrested and hauled off to the juvenile division for petty incidents. The fact that NOPD and security in schools are not specially trained in working with young people fuels this problem.
• New Orleans expelled children at a rate of almost three times the national average before the storm. In 2003 that amounted to 829 expulsions in one school year! Current data is not yet available, yet we have heard countless reports of students being suspended for “offenses” such as having their shirts untucked.
• Students who are recommended for expulsion have waited for sometimes one to two months for hearings for incidents that do not involve any drugs, weapons, or injuries. While many of these incidents surely warrant consequences, we all know sending a child on a three day to two month vacation is not the answer.
3) There is a lack of adequate services and supports for students.
• The story is ageless: a student with special learning needs in an overcrowded class becomes frustrated. Another student calls the child “retarded”, a fight ensues and the special needs child is accosted by school security, police, or administration and undoubtedly punished for what is a manifestation of a disability and a reaction to the feeling of constant failure. When a child does not know how to solve an equation, we teach them math. When a child does not know how to behave, we punish them and sometimes rely on the juvenile justice system to fix the problem.
• Finally, in post-Katrina New Orleans, experts estimate “that of the displaced and returning children 54 percent were experiencing symptoms that put them in need of further mental health care.” Clearly we need an unprecedented amount of services and supports in schools for all students.
SCHOOLS AS COMMUNTY CENTERS
In recent months, the Downtown Neighborhood Improvement Association Education Committee (DNIA-EC) has demanded that schools reduce security guards and replace them with additional social workers, interventionists, and counselors. The DNIA-EC has also made public their vision of “schools as community centers” as a way to transform our current struggling schools. Schools First shares this vision and stands in solidarity with the DNIA-EC.
In Chicago, communities saw great success when school leaders transformed schools into “‘the anchor of the community,’ a community hub where families can have access to services and programs.” These community schools showed decreased student mobility, increased student achievement, better attendance and lower truancy rates. With financially assisting communities that are already working toward creating schools as community centers, city council could lead as significant part of the transformation of our schools.
CITY COUNCIL SHOULD IMMEDIATELY:
1) Review the comprehensive zoning ordinance to determine how City Council can streamline the process to create schools that also operate as community centers.
2) Partner with local and national businesses and foundations to fund an initiative turning schools into community centers which provide a multitude of programming for students and their families, including services to support mental and behavioral health.
3) Immediately fund a training curriculum for NOPD working the in schools that includes sessions on adolescent development, positive interactions with youth, working with students with special learning needs, the impact of stress on student behavior, and incorporating security practices into the goals of the School-wide Positive Behavior Support program.
4) Require NOPD to track and report accurate and detailed school arrest data quarterly. With this data, advocates can pressure the various school entities to create in-school alternatives to removal that keep kids in school and off the streets of New Orleans.
ORLEANS PARISH SCHOOL BOARD, THE RECOVERY SCHOOL DISTRICT AND ALL CHARTER SCHOOLS SHOULD IMMEDIATELY:
1) Create and implement effective school-based interventions and alternatives to removal to help students with challenging behaviors.
2) Immediately fund a training curriculum for current security personnel and law enforcement working the in schools that includes sessions on adolescent development, positive interactions with youth, working with students with special learning needs, the impact of stress on student behavior, and incorporating security practices into the goals of the School-wide Positive Behavior Support program.
3) Immediately fund additional mental health specialists, school/guidance counselors, interventionists and social workers in schools and maintain a wide range of services to invest in the strengths of all our children.
4) Attain a “second opinion” from a local or national expert on the number of security guards necessary in each school and maintain a security staff that meets the need for school safety without criminalizing kids.
5) Set up a formal system allowing students to file complaints against specific security personnel and release a report summarizing the institutional response to these complaints.
6) Immediately bring in a nationally recognized special education consultant to assess the current services being provided to special education students in OPSB, RSD and charter schools.