I. Introduction

The school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately places students of color, including those who identify as LGBTQ, have disabilities, and/or are English Language Learners, into the criminal justice system for minor school infractions and disciplinary matters, subjecting them to harsher punishments than their white peers for the same behaviors. The school-to-prison pipeline diminishes their educational opportunities and life trajectories. All educators – which includes every school employee – are key to ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

NEA’s Resolutions state NEA’s firm belief that schools must be safe and welcoming for all students, discriminatory toward none, and focused on educational practices that reach the whole child and disciplinary policies that emphasize prevention and rehabilitation over punishment (see, e.g., Resolutions B-6, B-14 (f – h, k) B-71, C-7, C-28, C-39). NEA’s Resolutions also reflect NEA’s belief “that all education employees must be provided professional development in behavior management, discipline, [and] conflict resolution,” (D-18) and that both education employees and parents need training “to help students deal with stress and anger.” (C-7). NEA also believes that equally important is deepening educator awareness about their actions and the impact on students. The purpose of this Policy Statement is not to modify existing NEA Resolutions, but to explain how NEA will act on its already stated beliefs to end the school-to-prison pipeline.

II. Definitions

For purposes of this Policy Statement, the following definitions apply:

  1. School-to-Prison Pipeline means the policies and practices that are directly and indirectly pushing students of color out of school and on a pathway to prison, including, but not limited to: harsh school discipline policies that overuse suspension and expulsion, increased policing and surveillance that create prison-like environments in schools, overreliance on referrals to law enforcement and the juvenile justice system, and an alienating and punitive high-stakes testing-driven academic environment.
  1. Institutional Racism means the norms, policies and practices that are structured into political, societal and economic institutions that have the net effect of imposing oppressive conditions and denying rights, opportunity, and equality to identifiable groups based upon race or ethnicity.
  1. Zero-Tolerance policies mean school disciplinary polices that set predetermined consequences or punishments for specific offenses or rule infractions. Zero-tolerance policies forbid persons in positions of authority from exercising discretion or changing punishments to fit individual circumstances.
  1. Restorative practices are processes that proactively build healthy relationships and a sense of community to prevent and address conflict and wrongdoing. Restorative practices are increasingly being applied in individual schools and school districts to address youth behavior, rule violations, and to improve school climate and culture. Restorative practices can improve relationships between students, between students and educators, and even between educators, whose behavior often serves as a role model for students. They allow each member of the school community to develop and implement a school’s adopted core values.Restorative practices allow individuals who may have committed harm to take full responsibility for their behavior by addressing the individual(s) affected by the behavior. Taking responsibility requires understanding how the behavior affected others, acknowledging that the behavior was harmful to others, taking action to repair the harm, and making changes necessary to avoid such behavior in the future. Restorative practices also represent a mindset that can help guide adult and youth behavior and relationship management in schools, not another program. They are not intended to replace current initiatives and evidence based programs like Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) or social and emotional learning models that assist in building a foundation and culture of caring. Programs and initiatives like PBIS complement restorative practices.
  1. Cultural Competence means the capacity to interact effectively and respectfully with people from different racial, ethnic, and/or economic backgrounds. Such competence includes understanding that different cultures have different communication codes and styles, being open to learning from others, to shift out of one’s own cultural paradigm, and to refrain from judging people before honestly exploring what motivates their behavior.
  1. Implicit Bias means the deep-seated attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner.
  1. To educate the Whole Child means to use all available resources to maximize the achievement, skills, opportunities, and potential of each student by building upon his or her strengths and addressing his or her needs. A Whole Child approach prepares students to thrive in a democratic and diverse society and changing world as knowledgeable, creative, engaged citizens and lifelong learners.

III. Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline

The school-to-prison pipeline deprives students of color of their futures by pushing them out of school and its pathway to college and careers, and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The pipeline is the result of an array of policies and practices, fed by institutional racism, that disproportionately affect students of color, including those who identify as LGBTQ, have disabilities, and/or are English Language Learners. The policies and practices include harsh school discipline policies that overuse suspension and expulsion, “zero-tolerance” policies that criminalize minor infractions of school rules, increased policing and surveillance in schools that create prison-like environments in schools, and overreliance on exclusionary disciplinary referrals to law enforcement and juvenile justice authorities. Students who are suspended or expelled not only fall behind academically but are significantly more likely to drop out of school altogether, fail to secure a job, rely on social welfare programs and end up in prison.

As educators, NEA and its members are committed to changing the policies and practices of the schools in which we work to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Our work to that end will be guided by the following five principles.

Guiding Principle 1: Eliminating Disparities in Discipline Practices

Disciplinary policies and practices should not have a disparate impact based on students of color, including those who identify as LGBTQ, have disabilities, and/or are English Language Learners. NEA will advocate for schools, school districts and states to review their disciplinary policies and practices for any such disparate impact; to take prompt and effective action to eliminate any disparate impact that is found; and to continue to monitor disciplinary policies and practices to ensure that they are fair and non-discriminatory.

Guiding Principle 2: Creating a Supportive and Nurturing School Climate

NEA will promote awareness of, and support the development of, effective school disciplinary procedures that support high expectations for quality instruction and learning, treat students respectfully, and provide all students with a supportive and nurturing school environment. NEA recognizes that educators play an essential role in developing such procedures and creating a school community that promotes respectful, caring and trusting positive relationships among students and adults. NEA also recognizes that other stakeholders must also be fully engaged in that effort including local affiliates, local school boards, community organizations and members as well as family members.

Guiding Principle 3: Professional Training and Development

NEA believes that educators must be better prepared to respond to the social and emotional needs of each student. All school staff must understand what it means to be culturally competent and responsive. Educators must be given the tools to develop the skills needed to interact with students from different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. NEA must encourage stakeholders to work together to develop and implement, with fidelity, training that is proven, substantial, and ongoing, and professional development tools that are responsive to the needs of students and educators and that build and increase educators’ cultural competence over the course of their careers.

At a minimum, such training and professional development shall include: (1) developing communications skills including strategies for peer-to-peer, educator-to-parent, educator-to-student, and student-to-educator communication; (2) developing cultural competence including awareness of one’s own implicit biases, understanding culturally competent pedagogy and becoming cultural responsive in one’s approach to education and discipline; (3) training developed for, and delivered to, pre-service, early career, and experienced educators; and (4) an understanding of educational trauma and its impact on a student’s education.

Guiding Principle 4: Partnerships and Community Engagement

NNEA will use its existing partnerships with education partners, students, parents, community-based organizations, and social justice advocacy groups to: (A) raise awareness of the school-to-prison pipeline, (B) eliminate disparate discipline policies and practices, (C) develop and implement the necessary professional development and training for school staff, and (D) build respectful and supportive school environments. NEA will also participate in, and build upon, existing coalitions by bringing together diverse groups of education and social justice stakeholders for the purpose of identifying and sharing policies, practices, and activities to end the school-to-prison pipeline. To that end, NEA will foster relationships with community-based nonprofits, school districts, peer mentoring groups, mental health organizations, churches, professional associations, alternative schools/juvenile correctional institutions, law enforcement, and national and state advocacy groups.

Guiding Principle 5: Student and Family Engagement

In order to change school cultures, the social and emotional needs of students must be strengthened and supported through education, parental and community partnerships and relationship building. Students, parents, and other caregivers need to be engaged and trained in problem-solving techniques, conflict resolution skills, anger management and other skills. Students need to be invested in their own success and understand why taking responsibility for their conduct is important. As part of this effort, NEA encourages the development and implementation of restorative practices to build healthy relationships and a community to prevent and address conflict and wrongdoing.

IV. Advocacy and Action

NEA believes that one size fits all discipline policies, such as zero-tolerance, harsh disciplinary approaches, and toxic testing endanger educational opportunities and make dropout and incarceration more likely for millions of students. NEA will lead efforts to end the school-to-prison pipeline by focusing its work in two areas: Awareness and Advocacy.

Awareness. NEA believes that there must be increased awareness among its members and the public about the school-to-prison pipeline and the ongoing, widespread disparate outcomes in discipline practices. NEA should raise awareness of the benefits of professional development and training in cultural competency, implicit bias, and restorative practices. NEA and its affiliates must continually examine and highlight data to illustrate the problems with the school-to-prison pipeline and the impact on students of color. NEA encourages schools and districts to provide educators with intensive training and professional development, along with access to tools on classroom management and model discipline practices.

Advocacy. NEA has a responsibility to advocate for discipline policies and procedures, legislation, and practices that will end the school-to-prison pipeline. Advocacy must include the continual identification of model school districts that have enacted fair and effective discipline policies. As educators, NEA is in the best position to develop model discipline policies that encourage the use of fair and effective discipline practices, and discourage the use of school-based arrests and referrals to law enforcement, before educators attempt corrective action. NEA must continuously advocate for the elimination of unjust policies and practices that fuel the school-to-prison pipeline.

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