Op-ed: Help us divert students from the school-to-prison pipeline

First Published      Last Updated Feb 28 2015 05:42 pm

I first stumbled upon the term "school-to-prison pipeline" when I was being trained for Peer Court, a restorative justice program in Salt Lake City. I had heard of suspensions, but I never imagined that it was a pathway from school to prison. I also never equated the school-to-prison pipeline with my own life until recently. It was a faded memory from elementary school.

In our classroom, we always had the one we called "troublemaker." When he was suspended, I don't think any of us were surprised. We didn't know why and we didn't question it further. After all, troublemakers are troublemakers. School went on as usual, but it is only now that I know how much one suspension can affect youth.

I'm not saying that this kid is now a criminal. I haven't heard of him for a long time and I don't know how he's doing. But to think that even one suspension could influence a child's course in life is staggering.

Studies have shown that teens with more suspensions, sometimes for trivial reasons, are more likely to drop out of high school. According to a report on education and correctional populations, from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, students are eight times more likely to go to prison when they drop out. When school administrators jump directly to out-of-school suspensions or expulsions rather than other restorative practices such as counseling, mediation, conflict resolution and programs like Peer Court, this action can really change a youth's life — and not for the better. We're placing kids away from a safe educational environment into an environment where anything can happen. From there, problems worsen. Once stuck in the criminal justice system, people may never get out.

This is not only a national problem, it exists locally, and now the statistics are out, thanks to the Public Policy Clinic at the University of Utah's S.J. Quinney College of Law. In Utah, the groups most impacted by harsh punitive approaches (suspensions and expulsions) are American Indians, Blacks and Hispanics. According to the clinic's report, Fingerpaint to Fingerprints, "[America Indian children] are one-and-a-half to three-and-a-half times more likely to be disciplined than their white counterparts." This is not something people can ignore. Instead of harsh disciplinary action, school administrators, school resource officers, and parents should aim for understanding and helping youth, not pushing them away.

In January, youth from all over the state gathered at the first Youth Leadership and Activism Conference hosted by the ACLU of Utah, Salt Lake Peer Court, the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Salt Lake and Planned Parenthood at the University of Utah. The school-to-prison pipeline was discussed in depth, and students shared their own stories of being suspended for trivial reasons or misunderstandings. The conference gave students essential tools for activism and inspired youth to make a change in their communities.

One of the goals all of us had was to spread awareness, and we were given the education to do so. There are so many stories out there and so many kids losing their way, and their voices should be heard. We as youth need to continue to address these issues with our schools and school districts, but we need community support as well.

I urge the Salt Lake School Board, the Utah State School Board, and Utah's legislators to look at this serious issue affecting Utah's future generations. There is now information that there is a school-to-prison pipeline in Utah, and we as students are deeply concerned and ready to take action. Today we ask, will you stand with us?

Varesh Gorabi is a student and writer for the Highland Rambler at Highland High School and a member of Salt Lake Peer Court.