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Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Case Study of Community-Led Disciplinary Reform in Kern County

2018 | Berkeley Media Studies Group

In December 2012, Carmen Ramirez, a student at Arvin High School in Kern County, California, was reassigned to an alternative school 30 miles from her home, after being found with marijuana. The paperwork shared with her father, Mario, to explain the suspension and transfer were in English; however, Mario speaks mostly Spanish and allegedly gave consent without being fully informed.

That same semester, Gabriel Elder, a Latino student at Kern Valley High School, was suspended for "talking back," "engaging in profanity," and other minor offenses. Elder had recently been diagnosed with major depression and was exposed to domestic violence, but his mother's requests to have the school provide counseling and special education services for Elder reportedly were refused.

Two years later, Jerry Reagor, an African American student who was attending Foothill High School in Kern County reported being harassed, threatened, and assaulted by gang members on his way to school. His mother raised the issue with administrators and school police, yet the school district allegedly did not take action. Instead, staff claimed that Reagor was the aggressor. KHSD later transferred him to another school, citing Reagor's supposed "gang affiliations."

These are just a few of the many allegations that appear in a 2014 lawsuit that a group of parents, students, and advocates brought against the Kern High School District, which, data revealed, was suspending and expelling its students of color at higher rates than its white students. The lawsuit referred to this as "systematic discrimination" and said that it had created a "racially hostile educational environment."

"The science really is clear: The more you send a kid away, the worse they get, not better," said Dr. Jeffrey Sprague, a professor of special education at the University of Oregon who, in the late 1990s, helped pioneer Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), a proactive approach to behavioral issues, which works to establish socially and emotionally supportive school climates. "For the students most at risk in our communities," he added, "simply sending them away essentially trains them to become prisoners … it's called the school-to-prison pipeline."

Read the full case study here