School To Prison Pipeline Coalition

A project of the Southern Poverty Law Center/Southern Disability Law Center

Assessments throughout Louisiana have revealed that a significant percentage of children involved in the juvenile justice system were referred by the school system. Thousands of children are arrested in school each year. Nationwide, this has come to be known as the School to Prison Pipeline.

In February 2005, the Southern Poverty Law Center̀s School to Prison Reform Project launched its first class action administrative complaint against the Louisiana State Department of Education after a yearlong investigation revealed that the Jefferson Parish School System was systematically violating the rights of emotionally disturbed students, most of whom were poor, African-American children. A settlement agreement was reached in May 2006, requiring a special master to oversee a Corrective Action Plan that will benefit as many as 1,000 children in that district.

The Project also filed class administrative complaints against the East Baton Rouge, Caddo and Calcasieu school districts. Settlement agreements were reached with the East Baton Rouge district in 2006 and the Caddo and Calcasieu Parish School Systems in 2007.

Each of these school districts routinely suspended or expelled disabled children for minor offenses related to their disabilities. The Jefferson Parish district even segregated these students in self-contained classrooms or trailers in violation of federal and state regulations. The school districts also consistently failed to provide appropriate levels of related services (social work, counseling and psychological services) and vocational training to emotionally disturbed children. These practices had a pervasive and dramatic adverse impact on these students. The vast majority were typically performing several years behind their grade level and their peers by the time they reached junior high or high school. This in turn led to abysmal graduation rates and alarmingly high drop-out rates.

The settlement agreements reached in the Louisiana cases mandate major systemic changes, including:

Significantly increasing the frequency and duration of social work, psychological and counseling services; Implementing district-wide use of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports; Improving the students' academic progress at all grade levels; Eliminating many harsh and illegal disciplinary practices and policies; Significantly increasing access to less restrictive general education environments; and, Significantly expanding access to vocational training.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has joined the Southern Disability Law Center and numerous partners throughout Louisiana to host a ÏSchool to Prison Reform CoalitionÓ which is examining ways to reduce youth involvement in the juvenile justice system, reduce Louisianàs drop-out rate, and improve student behavior in school. The Louisiana Public Defender Board joined the Coalition and is coordinating with the Coalition in these efforts.

If you are interested in finding out more about systemic special education reform, contact Thena Robinson, at thena.robinson@splcenter.org.

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