The statistics are clear. During the 2018-2019 school year, nearly 95% of East Baton Rouge Parish Schools students suspended out-of-school were Black as was 89.4% of students with in-school suspensions. The overwhelming majority of them are males.
In a school district with a 78.1% Black student population, 92.7% of the students referred to law enforcement from EBR schools were Black students.
These statistics were familiar for some of the 200 people who gathered to hear Division B Juvenile Court Judge Gail Grover‘s presentation on the school to prison pipeline.
For others, these numbers are startling.
Do they indicate systemic problems with discipline?
Do they reveal behavior and attendance challenges?
Do they signal a greater problem in the school to prison pipeline?
“Yes. We can see manifestation of the problem,” Grover said. “We have work to do but the work is definitely doable.”
According to Grover, the parish’s school to prison pipeline “is not the police being called to the school and those children being taken to detention,” she explained. “It is actually the result of young people not being in school as a result of expulsions or suspensions or truancy.”
She said 54% of East Baton Rouge Parish students are truant which means they have 5 or more unauthorized absences or tardiness within one school semester. These truancy numbers give a degree of what the problem is and what our solutions have to be, she said. “It’s going to take all of us,” said Grover who has served in juvenile justice for 23 years. “We can interrupt the pipeline. I am convinced.”
To do so, Grover suggested the development of a multi-disciplinary, inclusive team that is “always together and always looking at policy and research.” Then, she suggested catching absenteeism immediately on the fifth day, creating a screening instrument to determine if a student needs to be removed from school versus detailed; expanding trauma training; building trust and connecting families with caring mentors; and incorporating restorative justice models when removing students from school.
Grover said these trauma and trust-building training will begin the process of dismantling the school to prison pipeline. “If we don’t do the work, (these students) will have a lifetime of unmet potential and failed experiences,” she said.
Grover present other strategies the parish’s juvenile courts have begun, including:
- Meeting with school system leaders and child welfare officers,
- Reducing inappropriate and unnecessary detainment of students in school environments,
- Developing new mentorship initiatives to help students return to schools,
- Focusing on a high school truancy docket each third Tuesday and first Thursday with due-diligence processes,
- Conducting thorough IEP reviews to consider student disabilities and special needs as it impacts their school behavior, and
- Increasing transparency of how courts are handling juveniles
According to Grover, the parish has seen a 50% reduction in youth entering the juvenile system more than 10 years. She said her office is connecting with mentoring organizations to implement programs at the beginning of the next school year as well as researching the Open Table grassroots model where 8-10 people adopt one family to help them face social challenges.
“You may not be able to do it alone, but I know you have eight friends. This is work we can do..So when we are asked, ‘How are the children?’ We want to say, ‘The children are well’.” she said.
Grover presented “Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline” on Feb. 18, as part of VIPS’ Partners in Education Business Luncheon. VIPS volunteers Christopher Drew Murray and Dorothy Kemp encouraged the audience to step up and volunteer.
Following the luncheon, Grover posted on Facebook, “It is HIGHLY important that we not only work within the judicial system to fix truancy but that the community and those involved in education input their questions and experiences into the conversation.”
By Candace J. Semien
Jozef Syndicate reporter