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PART I: Youth incarceration and Oklahoma’s school-to-prison pipeline
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Editor’s Note: This is part one of a two piece story. Part two to follow Sept. 23.

OKLAHOMA CITY – Local civil rights leaders and juvenile justice reform advocates convened in Oklahoma City last week to discuss strategies for reducing youth incarceration. The Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights heard testimony from academics, educators, and community leaders working to reform school disciplinary practices and repair the juvenile justice system.  The hearing took place on Friday, September 11, 2015.  The Advisory Committee will continue to accept written testimony from members of the public until October 12, 2015.

Statistics show that students of color are more frequently subject to harsh discipline than their white classmates.  The stated purpose of the advisory committee hearing was “to hear testimony regarding school discipline policies and practices that may have a disparate impact on students on the basis of race or color.”

Oklahoma public schools are suspending and expelling young persons of color at rates much higher than their white peers. Black, Hispanic, and American Indian students are disproportionately subjected to arrest, incarceration, and judicial referrals. More often than not, their initial contact with law enforcement comes through the school system.

Table showing enrollment demographics compared to school-based arrests (students in category). (Image provided by the Office for Civil Rights - US Department of Education)

In the Oklahoma City School district, Black students without disabilities represent 26 percent of the total district enrollment, but account for nearly 44 percent of all school-based arrests.  American Indian students without disabilities are only 4.3 percent of the student population, but represent 11.2 percent of school-based arrests.  Nationwide, American Indian students are 2.6 times more likely to be referred to law enforcement than white students.

Over the past six months, the Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights has held monthly meetings to develop recommendations on how to address the school-to-prison pipeline as a civil rights issue. 

The day-long hearing on September 11 included testimony from panellists representing different fields and areas of expertise. The first panel was comprised of school superintendents for the Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and Millwood School Districts. The second panel included academics studying disproportionate minority contact with the criminal justice system. A third panel included testimony from public defenders, former district attorneys, and a presiding judge of the Oklahoma County Juvenile Center. The other panels included educators and nonprofit group members who using a community-based “total school” approach to improving school climate.

Panelists addressed possible ways of reducing disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system, including Restorative Justice techniques. Restorative justice focuses not on discipline and punishment, but on restoring good relationships within school communities.

While national statistics on incarceration rates and violent crime indicate a 20 year decline, the overrepresentation of minority groups remains high. Juvenile delinquency rates follow the same overall trend. In Oklahoma, between 1997 and 2010, the overall rate of juvenile incarceration dropped by about 19 percent. Despite the overall decline, states like Oklahoma are slashing school budgets and spending more on incarceration.

Racial divides and differential treatment

Despite declining rates on youth crime and incarceration, Some Oklahoma cities are pressing ahead with plans to increase the police presence in their schools.  Norman is one city.

Scholars like Dr. Paul Ketchum suggest this increased police presence automatically increases the likelihood of school-based arrests and juvenile justice referrals. To stem the tide of incarceration, Ketchum says a number of states and school districts are looking at policies and laws that are limiting how harshly students are dealt with. “That’s clearly the first and correct step for dealing with the school-to-prison pipeline in the short term.”

Ketchum is a fierce critic of a regular law enforcement presence in schools. But when it comes to the City of Norman, that criticism is tempered by praise for the Norman Public School system and a high level respect for the Norman Police Department. “I’ve worked a lot with Norman PD and I think they are a very progressive police force,” Ketchum said. “I also have a lot of former students that are in Norman PD.”

Ketchum has also worked with the superintendent of Norman Public Schools, Dr. Joe Siano, whom he says is “one of the most intelligent superintendents out there.”  With all the high praise Ketchum has for NPD and NPS, he respectfully parts ways when it comes to the School Resource Officer program. He thinks the decision to put more police in schools is misguided, based on irrational fears.  “There isn’t enough danger at school to warrant it.” 

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” Ketchum says with an exasperated laugh. “We’re afraid that schools are a dangerous place and they’re not.  They’re so incredibly safe.  All the numbers show that.”  His laugh is tinged with despair over the absurdity of the situation. “We are criminalizing stupid behavior and it’s done out of fear.”  Ketchum has also voiced concern over NPD’s plans to purchase military-style vehicles, which he says is troublesome.  “We’re scared of a lot of weird things.”

Ketchum has first-hand experience with school violence. During his time as an instructor in Los Angeles high schools, he survived an active-shooter incident. He was held at gunpoint by a student and feared for his life.

Ketchum, a Professor of Criminal Justice at OU who specializes in race and ethnicity in public education, says the severity of juvenile court referrals, expulsions, and school-based arrests is influenced more by the racial group of the offender than by the actual offense. Disproportionate minority contact with the criminal justice system isn’t based on any actual differences in behavior between white and nonwhite adolescents. White and non-white youths misbehave at comparable rates. There is no racialized difference in youth behavior.

“We don’t have the mythical super-predators of black and brown kids.  We have kids.  And kids do the same rate of stupid, smart, and everything else regardless of their racial or ethnic group,” Ketchum said.  According to Ketchum and the peer-reviewed studies, race and ethnicity has no bearing on whether an individual is more or less likely to commit a criminal offense. The data doesn’t bear it out. “It just doesn’t matter, and every study is showing that.”  Ketchum says that overall, we know there is no big difference in criminality between different racial and ethnic groups. “The problem is we are trained to be afraid.”

Ketchum also says it’s important to limit the amount time of police officers spend in schools. “You want limitations on how often police are on campus. You don’t want minor issues to be sent to the police.”  Having a police record impacts an individual’s future treatment, and will impact how deeply they go into the criminal justice system later in life.

On the deeper, systemic issues with the school-to-prison pipeline, Ketchum says “this is an issue about race. We know that it’s an issue about race, because when you control for everything else, it’s non-whites.”  Black youth, and to a greater extent, Native American youth are treated more harshly by the system.

“As you’re trying to deal with the school-to-prison pipeline, you have to keep in mind it is part of a larger racial issue.”   Differential treatment is based not on the actual acts of defiance, but on the biases and perceptions of the authority figures--teachers, school administrators--who deal with and report misbehavior.

Predominantly white administrators and white law enforcement officers perceive and respond to minority students more harshly than they do when similar offenses are committed by white students.  For Ketchum and others studying disproportionate minority contact with the criminal justice system, it’s a problem with differential treatment of racial and ethnic groups. Much of that, according to Ketchum, stems from implicit biases against people of color.  “It’s a symptom of larger racial bias--sometimes overt, sometimes subtle, sometimes institutional, sometimes all of the above.” 

Having a more diverse and representative faculty and staff is key to reducing differential treatment of minority groups.  Ketchum says “we need more people of color as teachers. We also need more people of color in administrative positions.”  School districts with high incarceration rates need to ramp up their efforts to recruit teachers from the same racial and ethnic backgrounds as the students they teach.

As part of his ongoing research, Ketchum continues to work in troubled high schools in Oklahoma.  He serves as an instructor in urban schools with large minority populations. He discussed the successes at one school district that recently hired a new superintendent. That superintendent brought in a new group of administrators from diverse backgrounds. So far, the plan is working.  Ketchum said “we just looked at their school discipline data, and there is no racialized difference. There is no overrepresentation. There was before he brought in that group.”

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Casey Holcomb

Casey Holcomb is a writer, independent journalist, and policy advocate based in Norman, Oklahoma...

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