Front End Criminal Justice Reform: Invest in Schools, Not Prisons

July 13, 2020

Students standing in line, young people in a prison setting standing in line

What are your favorite memories from school? Seeing your friends every day? Learning something new from an inspiring teacher? Recess? (We always loved recess!) Or maybe those times you walked to a Scoop Shop after class as the days warmed up and summer drew near? 

School should be a safe, supportive place where kids start discovering who they are and begin building a foundation for the future. That’s how it should be. Unfortunately, for many Black and Latinx students, it’s not like that at all. 


Overpolicing Our Schools

Why? Well, let’s start here: between 1979 and 2012, state and local governments increased spending on jails and prisons at three times the rate of school spending. This was the beginning of the era of mass incarceration, remember, and as more prisons were built, more schools were made to feel like prisons. Between metal detectors at the doors and police in the hallways, many students, especially those from communities of color, felt and continue to feel more monitored and frightened than safe and supported. 

Today, 42% of American high schools have some sort of school police, but for schools with high Black and Latinx enrollment, that number jumps to 51%. And that police presence comes at a cost. Chicago, for example, spent $50 million on school “security guards” in 2010, and then paid out an additional $2 million for settlements related to officers’ misconduct. When you invest money in policing students rather than helping and teaching them, things like this happen: 1.6 million students across the U.S. attend schools with school police but no school counselor. 

Sadly, it’s no surprise that when you make schools feel like prisons, you begin to criminalize behavior that would normally be handled by the principal’s office. And Black and Latinx kids have been hit by this bias the hardest.


Our Kids Are Not Being Treated Equally

Studies show that Americans see Black children, boys and girls alike, as older and less innocent than white boys and girls of the same age. Other research has demonstrated that people with darker skin are more often associated with criminal behavior than those with lighter skin. Implicit bias like this, along with systemic racism, help explain why, when it comes to being disciplined at school, Black and Latinx young people are treated very differently than their white counterparts. 

  • Black students routinely receive harsher punishments than white students for the same or similar offenses. (This is true even for preschool-age children!)
  • Black and Latinx students make up 40% of the U.S. public school population, but account for 58% of school arrests. White students are 50% of the public school population, but make up only 34% of arrests. 
  • Black boys are three times as likely to be arrested as white boys at school. Black girls represent 16% of the female student population, but make up 43% of girls referred to law enforcement (2.5 times more often than white girls). 


Turn off the Pipeline

In this country, nearly 200,000 young people enter the criminal justice system each year. On any given day, 10,000 juveniles are being housed in adult prisons and jails. . 

These are kids we’re talking about. Getting the police involved in the disciplining of Black and Latinx students can derail their futures before they ever reach adulthood. When they’re thrown into the school-to-prison pipeline, they suffer, their families suffer, and their communities suffer. And this doesn’t make anyone safer. 

It’s time for all of us to stand up and demand that kids be treated like kids.


Stand up for Kids

We’re working with our partners, Advancement Project and Color of Change, to make sure that all children attend schools where they are safe, respected, and supported. 

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, many school districts all around the country have cut ties with the police. And many more are likely to follow. When we get police out of our schools, we can invest instead in the counselors, programs, teachers, and extracurriculars that allow students, and their families and communities, to thrive.

At their best, schools are places where kids can dream, where they can start finding out who they are and what they want to do with their lives. No matter the color of their skin, all kids deserve that time and that space. They deserve freedom—freedom from fear and injustice, freedom to grow into whoever and whatever they want to be.