Schools Often Respond to Student Health Needs with Discipline


By Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health

Schools with students who have higher levels of substance use and depressed feelings have a higher prevalence of school discipline and school-based police contact, according to a study by Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health researchers. Schools with students who felt less safe in school and reported lower school and community support also had a higher prevalence of school discipline. The results are published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

This study provides the first empirical evidence that schools’ average levels of student substance use, depressed feelings, and developmental risk and resilience factors are predictors of school suspensions, expulsions, and school-based police contact—outcomes that characterize the school-to-prison pipeline. The school-to-prison pipeline is a set of policies and practices that make it more likely for some adolescents to be criminalized and ensnared in the legal system than to receive a quality education. These include zero-tolerance disciplinary policies; airport-style security and surveillance; increased presence of police in schools; and increased use of school discipline (suspensions, expulsions, and police referrals/arrests) in response to student misbehavior.

“It is likely that students exposed to conditions conducive to substance use and mental health problems, such as systematic disinvestment in their communities, are more likely to get into trouble at school,” said Seth Prins, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology and sociomedical sciences at Columbia Mailman School. “But it’s also likely that they attend schools that rely on suspensions, expulsions, and police—rather than counselors, social-emotional learning specialists, or social workers—to manage the consequences of those very same conditions.”

The researchers linked 2003-2014 data from the California Healthy Kids Survey and the Civil Rights Data Collection, from over 4,800 schools and 4,950,000 students, and estimated relationships among standardized school-average levels of six substance use measures; eight developmental risk and resilience factors; and the prevalence of total discipline, out-of-school discipline, and police-involved discipline. Students also were asked several questions, about their home, school, and community environments; their friends; and themselves.

Schools with higher average levels of substance use had between 16-21 percent higher prevalence of total discipline in the subsequent year than schools with lower levels of substance use. Schools with higher average levels of violence and harassment had a 5 percent higher prevalence of subsequent total discipline than schools with lower levels of violence and harassment. And schools in which students reported higher average levels of feeling safe in school, school support, and community support had 9 percent to 21 percent lower prevalence of total discipline.

As a set of policies and practices, the school-to-prison pipeline comprises direct and indirect pathways from schools to the criminal legal system. The direct pathway is through the growing presence of police in schools. The phenomenon began in the 1990s, and there are now at least 20,000 police officers employed in schools nationwide, a nearly 40 percent increase from 1997. The indirect pathway is suspension and expulsion to deal with misbehavior in schools. Out-of-school suspensions have more than doubled over the past 40 years, and these policies have been borne disproportionately by adolescents of color.

“Our findings are not surprising. But the school-to-prison pipeline, and the school discipline practices that constitute it, remain persistent and pervasive. We still need empirical evidence that social movements, policymakers, parents, teachers, and students can use to challenge the assumption that these practices work as intended and without collateral consequences,” said Prins. “These policies and practices are essentially criminalizing and punishing students with health and developmental needs.

“We demonstrate that the school-to-prison pipeline is intertwined with adolescent health and well-being. As a field now engaged in the study of mass incarceration and its collateral consequences, public health should extend its gaze beyond the walls of jails and prisons and into other institutions, particularly schools, where disinvestments in social and public health infrastructures are implicated in the processes of criminalization that contribute to an expanding carceral state.”

Co-authors are Sandhya Kajeepeta, Charles Branas, and Lisa Metsch, Columbia Mailman School of Public Health; Mark Hatzenbuehler, Harvard University; and Stephen Russell, University of Texas, Austin.

The study was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (DA045955).

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