Report: Use COVID Relief Funds to Stop School-to-Prison Pipeline

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SEATTLE – Billions of federal stimulus dollars are heading to schools across the country. A report says states should use some of these funds to close the school-to-prison pipeline.

A Senior Research Fellow with The Sentencing Project and author of the report Richard Mendel said punishment through the criminal justice system has become increasingly present in schools – disproportionately falling on students of color.

He said reliance on the criminal justice system could stress kids out as they return to the classroom after a year and a half of dealing with the pandemic.

“Or schools can use – and communities can use,” said Mendel, “this money to reverse those policies and practices and do some things that are much more effective in terms of helping kids who are vulnerable to succeed and to reverse these discipline practices that have been counterproductive for so long.”

The COVID-19 relief legislation known as the American Rescue Plan directs $122 billion to schools.

Washington state has submitted a proposal for its share, about $1.8 billion. However, the plan does not mention efforts to curb the role of the justice system in schools.

One policy the report points to is reducing or eliminating police, known as school resource officers, on campuses. In Washington state, Seattle and Bellevue removed officers from schools in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Other school districts in the state have also considered removing police. Mendel said there’s no evidence police make schools safer and he says they tend to lead to more arrests for minor offenses.

He suggested other pathways schools can take.

“Efforts to change the climate of the school by embracing a restorative justice approach to discipline,” said Mendel, “and to present kids and give them opportunities for what’s called social and emotional learning, helping kids mature and to develop skills that will help them succeed in life beyond the academics.”

Nate Balis – director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation – said American Rescue Plan funds can keep young people engaged, instead of disconnecting them by pulling them into the justice system.

“There’s opportunities for funding that have never been there before where we can support young people and their families through tutoring and mentoring,” said Balis. “Or from community programs that may not exist in those districts right now.”

Featured photo: Two Washington state school districts removed police officers from campuses last year. (Chalabala/Adobe Stock)

Eric Tegethoff

Eric Tegethoff is a journalist covering the Northwest. Eric has worked as a reporter for KBOO, XRAY FM, and Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, Oregon, as well as other print and digital news media. In 2012, Eric traveled to North Dakota to write about the Bakken region oil boom. He's also worked at a movie theater, as a campaign canvasser and quality assurance at a milk packaging factory. Eric is originally from Orlando, Florida. He graduated from the University of Florida in 2010.

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