Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
Submitted to the URJ Biennial
The U.S. public education system has long served as a vital foundation for economic opportunity and upward social mobility. In recent years, however, educational and administrative policies in public early childhood programs, elementary and secondary schools have contributed to a climate that often criminalizes student misbehavior, rather than educating students on appropriate behavior. These policies may include: zero-tolerance policies for dealing with student misbehavior, use of force by School Resource Officers and other law enforcement officers, and poorly regulated and underfunded alternative educational programs. Together, such policies create a school-to-prison pipeline that pushes too many students out of the classroom and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
Students who find themselves in the school-to-prison pipeline are often unable to escape it. Zero-tolerance policies in schools frequently rely too heavily upon suspensions or law enforcement to address disciplinary issues. School Resource Officers and other law enforcement officials hired by schools often lack sufficient training for working with children, and increasingly act as a part of the school disciplinary system. This exposes students to use of force and school-based arrests that can send them directly to juvenile detention. Youth serving time in juvenile detention centers or in adult prisons face significant barriers to reentry, including a lack of educational opportunities in those facilities and obstacles to securing scholarships or grants once released. As a result, they tend not to return to school or graduate. In fact, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, students suspended once in ninth grade are twice as likely as students not suspended in ninth grade to drop out of high school. Compounded with the economic and social challenges often faced by the students who are most affected by the school-to-prison pipeline, these experiences can push young people into lifelong cycles of poverty, criminality, and incarceration.
There are also serious concerns about the disproportionate effects of the school-to-prison pipeline on people of color and people with disabilities. These disparities often arise from systemic and implicit biases against these populations and a lack of training and resources for addressing disciplinary issues through mechanisms other than enforcement or punishment. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) reports that, while African-American students make up approximately 15% of students in their Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) program, they represent 35% of students suspended once, 44% of students suspended multiple times and 36% of students expelled during the 2011-2012 school year. Students with disabilities are more than two times as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as are students without disabilities. Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline is a necessary part of guaranteeing equitable access to education regardless of race, ethnicity, or ability.
The Jewish tradition teaches that education is an essential command. As it is written, “One who teaches a child Torah is considered to have taught that child and that child’s children and grandchildren, to the end of the generations” (Kiddushin 30a). The passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next is critical to maintain the vitality of our society, and the public education system remains the single most important vehicle to educate young people in the United States.
The Union for Reform Judaism has long supported efforts to improve public education, recognizing that public schools “do more of God’s work in a day than most institutions do in a lifetime.” Our Movement affirms that public education is a key driver of equity precisely because it gives students of all backgrounds the chance to succeed. Additionally, we have expressed concern about the status of young people in the juvenile and criminal justice systems, and have condemned the deep racial disparities within those systems. We have also expressed strong support for the rights of people with disabilities. School discipline policies and practices rooted in fairness, compassion, and rehabilitation could disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and address the intersecting challenges posed by racial disparities in public education, discrimination on the basis of disability, and the mass incarceration of youth. As Reform Jews, we are compelled to support a public education system that provides all youth with adequate opportunities to learn, succeed, and speak against policies or practices that restrict educational access, especially when those restrictions disparately impact marginalized or vulnerable communities.
Recent efforts at the local, state, and national levels to collect data and attempt to reform school discipline practices serve as important first steps in addressing the school-to-prison pipeline. In particular, the 2015 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), includes several provisions to encourage public schools to measure school climate and discipline, as well as to fund alternatives to harsh discipline. Both the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights play key roles in collecting data on school discipline policies and investigating inequities in those policies. It is critical for the federal government to continue to enforce civil rights laws and provide proper guidance on ESSA implementation. It is also vital that states and school districts commit themselves to studying and reforming school discipline policies. In addition, school districts throughout the country have adopted new discipline approaches to limit the school-to-prison pipeline. These tools include restorative justice programs and increased mental health services, both of which seek to address the root causes of misbehavior. Restorative justice programs build stronger classroom communities and encourage reconciliation in response to disciplinary issues. In many cases, these programs have reduced suspension rates while improving the academic climate and education outcomes in the schools in which they have been implemented. Increased mental health services help ensure that students’ behavioral issues connected to mental health are not handled from a purely disciplinary perspective.
THEREFORE, THE UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM RESOLVES TO:
- The importance of quality public education as a driver of equity in our society; and
- Our commitment to a strong public education system that provides tools for students of all backgrounds to succeed;
- Encourage understanding of local school disciplinary systems and, if necessary, address challenges through the collective engagement of students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members;
- Urge states and school districts to take meaningful action that will limit the flow of students from schools into the juvenile justice system and prisons, including:
- Consistent, accurate and timely reporting on suspension and expulsion rates for all students;
- Reforming school discipline policies -- such as zero-tolerance policies, enforcement-only approaches to discipline, suspensions, and expulsions, use of force, and school-based arrests—that tend to criminalize minor student misconduct; and
- Instituting evidence-based alternative approaches to school discipline, such as anti-bias training for school staff, counseling and restorative justice programs;
- Urge the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education to continue investigating civil rights violations in school discipline practices;
- Support local, state, and federal policies to promote a classroom environment where all students have the opportunity to learn, and mitigate the disparate effects of school discipline practices on students of color and students with disabilities;
- Support measures to significantly reduce use of force by school resource officers and create a school climate free from intimidation, which may include increased presence of social workers, counseling training, anti-bias training, de-escalation training and forms of accountability;
- Encourage Reform congregations to engage local school board officials in dialogue about existing school discipline practices, opportunities for reform and supportive roles our community can play in reform efforts; and
- In cases where intervention at the school level fails, encourage Reform congregations to build relationships and act in local partnerships, with students and families that have been affected by school-to-prison pipeline policies, and with local judicial officials such as prosecutors and police, to identify and support programs, that will, among other elements:
- Provide an alternative to prosecution and if necessary, will expunge any criminal record;
- Offer a restorative justice program geared toward youth; and
- Offer assistance and guidance to recent parolees.
 Alliance for Excellent Education: Climate Change: Implementing School Discipline Practices That Create a Positive School Climate