Mental Health and The School to Prison Pipeline

Twenty percent of children in the United States suffer from a mental illness, and the overwhelming majority of schools have not designed counseling and discipline practices to help them best learn and thrive. Instead, zero-tolerance discipline policies often lead to students with mental health problems being suspended, expelled, or even arrested.

Zero-tolerance discipline policies aim to prevent bad behavior in schools by enforcing disproportionately harsh consequences, such as suspension and expulsion, for minor infractions. Zero-tolerance discipline was designed to deter drug-related behavior, but is often applied to all types of infractions in schools across the country.

The goal of zero-tolerance discipline is to increase consistency in punishments, deter bad behavior, and increase school-wide achievement by removing distractions and disruptions. However, the American Psychological Association’s Zero Tolerance Task Force found that the number of suspensions and expulsions still vary widely across the country, and students are more likely to be suspended again after they return from the first suspension. The APA also found no evidence that these harsh punishments increase school-wide achievement or graduation rates. Moreover, the study found a negative relationship between the number of suspensions a given school delivers and school-wide achievement, meaning the more students a school suspends, the worse that school performs.

Far from deterring bad behavior and improving educational outcomes, many zero-tolerance policies have created a pipeline where students are removed from school and often end up in the juvenile justice system. HuffPost reported that 80% of young people in one state facility had been suspended from school, and that 50% had been expelled. The problem also extends to the adult prison population, where 68% of males in state and federal prisons have not received  a high school diploma.

Minorities and children with a mental illness disproportionately comprise the school to prison pipeline. Black students make up 40% of students expelled from US schools every year, and when combined with Latino and Latina students, comprise 70% of in-school arrests. Additionally, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration states that 50% to 70% of inmates in the juvenile justice system meet the standard for having a mental disorder.

It’s time for schools should approach deterring bad behavior through a new lens.

In an interview with NPR, Liz Bicio, a licensed clinical social worker and director of the Early Childhood Consultation Partnership, said that “behavior is the language of a child.” When a child talks back to a teacher or gets into a fight with other students, they might be trying to assert power because they cannot stand up for themselves at home. Often children are crying out for someone to help them - to care enough about them to ask if anything is wrong - in the only language that they know. When school districts ignore a child’s context and only account for their immediate behavior in doling out punishment, as zero-tolerance policies mandate, they inhibit the flourishing of children who may already face barriers due to race, socioeconomic status, or difficult home situations. Instead, we must devise discipline programs that view a child as a whole person and strive to understand their context, not simply as a problem that needs to be dealt with.

Zero-tolerance discipline policies intended to maintain safety in schools often target the students most in need of support and protection . . .

In response, some states have implemented mental health programs specifically designed to keep their students out of handcuffs. Connecticut and Ohio developed the School Responder Model which calls for mental health clinicians, instead of police officers, to respond to situations that may involve a student with a mental health issue. Both states saw a decrease in school based arrests and court referrals, and established “good working partnerships among schools, service providers, law enforcement and the juvenile justice system.”

In some situations, meticulously designed policies should not be our first response. For some children, the greatest service we can provide is to simply take an earnest interest in them.

Brett Welch, a school counselor at Harvie Elementary School in Virginia, starts her days by standing at the front door, scanning children’s faces, looking for signs of distress. In an interview with NPR, Welch discussed how, “The first 10 minutes after a student arrives at school in the morning is a critical window . . . it can completely change their day.” When Welch is at Harvie, teachers send students who misbehave to her first – not the principal’s office. A kindergarten teacher remarked to NPR that “the child comes back so relaxed and so at peace,” demonstrating that sometimes simple positive engagement with an adult can make a significant difference in a child’s behavior.

Schools should be a safe haven - a place where students of all backgrounds can come together to learn to thrive in community and discover their passions and strengths. Too often, children’s home lives follow them into the classroom, precluding their ability to grow, and pushing them to act out. Zero-tolerance discipline policies intended to maintain safety in schools often target the students most in need of support and protection, and push them to the margins of society through the juvenile justice system. As Christian citizens we should work towards school policies that honor the dignity of every child, instead of unjustly and disproportionately students that suffer from mental illnesses.

Matt Leistra is a freelance mental health journalist living in Washington, DC. He is currently working for Crossroads Campaigns, a progressive political consulting firm that specializes in immigrant's rights and civic engagement.