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School-To-Prison Pipeline Targeted By Judges, Education Officials

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Jakayla Ivory, a St. Louis high-school student convicted of second-degree assault, likely would have gotten two years in jail. Instead, she went to school at Jimmie Edwards' Innovative Concept Academy.

Edwards, a St. Louis Juvenile Court judge, started the public school in 2009 with the purpose of serving students who might otherwise be lost to the juvenile justice system.

"It gave her (Ivory) hope for a better life," said Edwards, who handled Ivory's case and sentencing. "She is now doing well. She learned how to play chess, when she would have been locked up."

Edwards, in his crossover role of school leader and judge, embodies a new kind of firepower that civil-rights and children's advocates want to use to combat school discipline policies that lead to dropouts and arrests for minor infractions. "There's this great move afoot by the judicial realm to get involved," he said.

Edwards was one of several hundred state judges and education officials at a conference Monday in Midtown Manhattan on school justice and the school-to-prison pipeline. Many experts say zero-tolerance policies, a holdover from the war on drugs, punish all major and minor rule infractions equally and create the pipeline effect, bringing police disproportionately into high-minority schools.

In the past, advocates generally had only anecdotal evidence about the pipeline. "We knew more about learning and achievement than ever before, but we didn’t have a lot of data about the opportunity gap, about what underlies achievement- gap data," Russlynn Ali, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for civil rights, told The Huffington Post. "It was very difficult to tell the equity story quantitatively."

When Ali began working at the department, she said, she saw its biennial survey as a tool underused since 1968. So she expanded the categories of the Civil Rights Data Collection in the 2009-2010 school year to unpack specific topics -- expulsion, retention, suspension, detention -- in 72,000 public schools, or 85 percent of U.S. schools. The survey, which costs $3 million, eventually will include all public schools nationwide.

Last week, the release of the expanded federal data -- gave activists new ammunition. According to the results, black students are more than three-and-a-half times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled, according to Civil Rights' survey. More than 70 percent of students arrested in school or handed over to law enforcement were black or Hispanic.

These statistics are disturbing to former New York State Chief Judge Judith Kaye. After retirement, Kaye joined a Midtown law firm but rather than returning to mergers and acquisitions, her previous specialty as a lawyer, she focused on juvenile justice, an issue that had been nagging her for years.

"We now have 10 years of busting kids out of school for minor infractions, but we're just passing forward the next generation of criminals," said Kaye, who also chairs the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children.

Kaye brought judicial and educational workers together at the first "National Leadership Summit On School-Justice Partnerships" in New York City's Roosevelt Hotel this week. According to program materials, the goal is "keeping kids in school and out of court."

At the conference, Russell Skiba, an Indiana University education professor, shared research on discipline disparity and the policies that cause it.

"The data show that African American disproportionality [in discipline] is at its highest level ever and still increasing," he said.

Zero-tolerance policies, he explained, began in 1983 when 40 Navy seamen in Norfolk, Va., were suspended for having trace amounts of marijuana. That incident and a much-cited San Diego drug program titled "Zero Tolerance" led to no-tolerance policies as a method to fight drugs in multiple venues, eventually trickling down to schools. The idea is to remove bad students to improve educational environments, treating major and minor offenses similarly to emphasize the serious consequences.

But, Skiba said, zero-tolerance doesn’t always work that way. According to an American Psychological Association study, schools with higher rates of expulsion have lower academic achievement.

Cami Anderson, the superintendent of the Newark, N.J., school system, said she hopes to "demystify the notion that somehow we can teach double-digit multiplication, but we cant teach a child how to make informed decisions."

Advocates also met behind closed doors at the conference to identify "legal strategies as key levers to address the discipline problem," said NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Damon Hewitt. Using the law, he explained, doesn't only mean filing lawsuits. "It means working with school districts to help them understand their civil-rights obligations."

According to Edwards, making sure students are educated and not incarcerated is about ending a cycle of poverty. "They've been so negatively socialized from grandma to mom," he said. "They don’t have the ability to teach them to dream. My children have only had nightmares -- nightmares because the only thing they've learned has been negative."

"If the only thing your mama can teach you is to steal from the mall, that's what she teaches you," he added.

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