We Must Stop the Rampant Criminalization of Youth with Disabilities

Minority youth are more likely to become incarcerated than white youth. This fact is so prevalent that even people outside the juvenile justice field are familiar with the term school-to-prison pipeline.

In an era when there’s an overall decline in the incarceration of youth, we are also seeing problematic practices regarding school discipline. The use of in- and out-of-school suspensions has nearly doubled since 1970 even though we know that suspensions serve to disrupt education and are not an effective tool for improving student discipline. Additionally, most of the students suspended are punished for relatively minor infractions — tardiness, unruliness — rather than violent behavior or drug use.

Yet suspensions are a key contributing factor in the school-to-prison-pipeline. Suspended students are more likely to become disengaged from school or to have to repeat a grade, both of which increases their likelihood to become criminal justice involved. It is well known that black students are disproportionately impacted by these draconian disciplinary policies.

However, what is too often overlooked is the large impact on students with disabilities, especially students with so-called “invisible” disabilities — learning psychological disabilities, for example. In order to find a solution to this pressing problem, we must start talking about disability and intersectionality.

When we look at the current prison population we find that more than half of prison and jail inmates have a mental illness. When we look at just incarcerated women, the statistics are even worse: 73 percent of state prisoners, 61 percent of federal prisoners and 75 percent of jail inmates have a mental illness — i.e. a psychological or “invisible” disability.

Given that 18.5 percent of the general population has a mental illness, the incarcerated population is three to four times that number. This is indicative of a systemic pattern of discrimination against people with nonapparent disabilities. In many cases, the discrimination starts with the school-to-prison pipeline. In some cases it starts as early as preschool in states that permit the suspension and expulsion of unruly preschoolers.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, in the 2011-12 school year, students with disabilities served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) represented 12 percent of the overall student population, yet they represented 25 percent of students arrested and referred to law enforcement. Students with disabilities were also found to be more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than students without disabilities. This level of disproportionate punishment and criminal justice involvement of students with disabilities in schools mirrors the high incarceration of adults with disabilities.

It’s important to note that the 25 percent number is likely an underestimate because not every student who has a disability is necessarily diagnosed with one and given the federally mandated support. This underestimate is especially relevant when it comes to students with nonapparent disabilities. The punitive disciplinary system that too many schools adopt regarding misbehavior, such as talking during class, or not being on time, is that these are behaviors that need to be punished.

Moreover, the failure to correct these behaviors is too often regarded as a moral failing of the student rather than the manifestation of a disability. For example, a student with undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can easily be regarded as a “problem child” without the proper support s/he would need to flourish. Under this current paradigm, disability is effectively criminalized, rather than accommodated.

Disability impacts every ethnicity, socioeconomic class, gender and sexual identity. This means that the discrimination against already vulnerable groups becomes compounded when marginalized identities intersect with disability. The consequence of this entrenched system of discrimination is that our prisons are disproportionately filled with Hispanic and black people, with LGBTQ people and with poor people, all of who disproportionately have disabilities.

Given that this is a systemic problem that starts early, the solution too must be systemic and it must start early. We must work together to create disability-informed schools. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004, schools are mandated to test students who are suspected of having nonapparent disabilities. It is time that this law becomes more consistently enforced.

Additionally, we must work to have trauma-informed schools. Students experiencing trauma in home environments are more likely to fare poorly in school. Part of this is because about 35 percent of traumatized students develop learning disabilities, which makes them greater targets for the school-to-prison pipeline. Finally, we must take school resource officers out of schools. While there are exceptions, they too often are police officers who are not trained in administering age-appropriate discipline and often treat students who misbehave like criminals, exacerbating the vicious cycle of the pipeline.

The biggest and first step we can take to end the school-to-prison pipeline is to destigmatize disability, especially nonapparent disabilities. We as a society need to speak openly about disability and mental illness. Let’s stop criminalizing students with mental illness or other disabilities and start accommodating them, as is their civil right. Only then will we be able to help millions of children flourish and keep them out of the criminal justice system.

Kristina Kopic is one of the primary authors and researchers of the Ruderman White Paper on the Problematization and Criminalization of Children and Youth With Disabilities, which she produced as the advocacy content specialist for the Ruderman Family Foundation. Kopic has also been research and writing faculty at several universities throughout the Greater Boston Area.


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