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A Missouri council targets school-to-prison pipeline for students with disabilities

Studies show that students of color  and students with disabilities are suspended and referred to police more often than their peers in schools across Missouri. This disproportionate rate of discipline can disrupt their education and push these students into the criminal justice system.

A new Missouri grant aims to help change the process.

The Missouri Developmental Disabilities Council (MODDC) has announced a three-year, $275,000 grant to fund restorative justice training to one school, district, or organization in order to support its students of color who have developmental disabilities. The deadline to apply is July 29, and the grantee will be selected in August.

The Disrupting the School to Prison Pipeline (SToPP) program aims to change discriminatory practices toward students and improve their education experience, especially for students with disabilities.

“In response to the latest research and what we hear from our stakeholders in Missouri, we are turning our attention to examining the widespread disparities of the treatment of children with disabilities, and then children of color with and without disabilities and LGBTQ youth,” said Miranda Fredrick, communications coordinator of the MODDC.

“Students of color have different experiences in school, and students who have disabilities have different experiences in school. When you intersect the two, the experiences of Missouri students are significantly different.”

Nationally, Black students are referred to the police at a rate of 8.4 per thousand, more than twice the rate of 3.6 per thousand for white students, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of 2017-18 federal data. Nearly 230,000 students of all ethnicities were referred to law enforcement.

Students with disabilities were also found to be referred to police at the same rate — 8.4 students referred per thousand compared with 4.5 per thousand overall — almost twice the average rate.

In Missouri, Black students are referred to the police at  the rate of 6.3 per thousand, compared with 5.1 per thousand white students. Students with disabilities are referred at a rate of 9.1 per thousand, nearly double the rate for all students.

What is the school-to-prison pipeline? 

The school-to-prison pipeline is a structural process in which local, state and federal education and public safety policies pull students out of school and put them into the juvenile/criminal justice system.

“Black students experience a disproportionate amount of discipline at school and are also not given the discretion of lenience that other students tend to get,” said Melissa Patterson Hazley, a senior research associate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Institute for Human Development.

“This leads to a higher number of students becoming justice-involved, which is a ramp that’s difficult to get out,” Hazley said. “Students with developmental disabilities are impacted even more.”

Unconscious bias or racist preconceptions about the behavior of students of color are among  the biggest contributing factors to this pipeline. And if the student has a developmental disability, their method of processing or expressing their emotions can also be misconstrued.

“Students don’t act out for no reason,” said Hazley. “There’s a reason for that behavior. Experiencing an undiagnosed disability could be one of them. Or there could be some other social factors that are impacting the way a student might be misbehaving. Or there could just be some cultural differences in the way the student communicates and the way the adults communicate. And then adults are considering that misbehavior when that’s just a different communication style.”

Encounters with police and arrests are not the only forms of discrimation that disabled students of color may confront.

A disciplinary removal — defined as any instance in which a child is removed from schooling for disciplinary purposes — disrupts the student’s learning experience.

Nationally, there were 29 disciplinary removals per 100 students with disabilities in the 2018-19 school year, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. The students were enrolled under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which supports states in their efforts to aid children and youth with disabilities.

For Black students with disabilities, there were 64 disciplinary removals per 100 students with disabilities, according to the data.

And despite the fact that out-of-school suspension rates have declined in Missouri, they are still more than five times higher for schools with predominantly racial minorities than in schools with a majority of white students. These rates are also four times higher for poorer communities than wealthier ones, and more than three times higher in urban schools than in rural ones, according to a 2020 study by the Policy Research in Missouri Education Center of St. Louis University.

If students have to interact with law enforcement, it becomes part of a problematic pattern, Fredrick with the MODDC said.

“Long-term effects include time out of class, falling behind on homework, damaged self-worth, and long term there is a far-reaching effect on our society, and it perpetuates the cycles of poverty, the slow education attainment and systemic structural inequalities,” Fredrick said.

“This combination of missed class times and lowered self-esteem creates a damaging cycle that results in classroom disengagement and high dropout rates.”

What is restorative justice?

The MODDC has an extensive history of supporting inclusive education through collaboration with schools, families and communities.

The grant recipient will develop a series of restorative justice trainings that they will implement throughout their institution. Restorative justice responds to wrong behaviors through reconciliation with victims and the community at large.

Fredrick said the $275,000 grant would teach educators and school resource officers about building healthy relationships and community through conflict mediation, developing relational skills and participating in social engagement.

“Inclusivity, that piece is huge, very important. Exploring behaviors that have occurred, identifying those behaviors and impacts and being able to address those behaviors,” she said.

The UMKC Institute for Human Development will be applying for the SToPP grant. The center already has a strong policy arm and a few direct service programs. But despite their long-standing programs and projects, the institute wants more participation from students of color. If it wins the grant, it hopes to find ways to make the participation more diverse.

The institute also wants to investigate how student interactions can be made less punitive and more therapeutic, according to Hazley.

“I think there’s a perception that we need a big police response in schools. But what we do less often is have those staff members in the building that can get ahead of the real serious discipline problem,” she said.

Instead of depending on school resource officers to handle student conduct issues, “there are opportunities for other types of staff people that can be really effective and impactful in an educational environment,” she said.

Any school, district, university or organization looking to make their institutions more equitable for students of color with disabilities can apply.

Applications are due by Friday, July 29, at 3 p.m. For more information about the grant, visit the MODDC website.

This story was originally published by the Kansas City Beacon. It is published here from The Missouri Independent through a Creative Commons license.

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