An Interview with Catherine Strode
Dr. David Houchins is recognized as one of the country’s leading researchers in juvenile justice reform and academic strategies for at-risk youth. He was recently a featured speaker at a local conference addressing the ‘school to prison’ pipeline, defined by the American Civil Liberties Union as practices that drive kids from the classroom into the criminal justice system.
Now a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Special Education at Georgia State University, Dr. Houchins formerly taught high school and middle school students. In an interview with Catherine Strode, Dr. Houchins shares his thoughts on how to impact school expulsion rates and in doing so, impact the school to prison pipeline.
What is the statistical overview of the US prison youth population?
“Two million youth are incarcerated on an annual basis in the US. Of those who are incarcerated, nearly 34 to 70 per cent have some kind of disability. The majority have some kind of learning disability. The greatest number has emotional behavioral disabilities. About 70 per cent have at least three or more mental health disabilities, comorbid issues: substance abuse, sexual abuse, anxiety, depression. Those are the individuals that end up in the school to prison pipeline, the population that ends up in the juvenile justice system.”
What disparities are reflected in the school to prison pipeline?
“It’s the problem of kids who are most disenfranchised who get caught up in a system where their needs are not met within the school or in the social network they have. The disparities actually start in the beginning of school, where preschool kids are suspended or expelled for behaviors that should be addressed in the school system. In preschool, kids get suspended in disproportionate populations. Minority populations, those from the LGBTQ community disproportionately receive suspension more often or are expelled from schools. Kids with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be suspended in public schools: kids who have EBD (emotional and behavioral disorders), learning disabilities, kids who have different behavioral issues. Certain populations may not have access to families that teach them basic skills so they are dealing with language issues which causes reading problems. They continue to be behind which causes behavior problems which leads to being suspended at earlier rates than other kids.”
Why do kids with disabilities form a large percentage of the juvenile justice population?
“The theories of why kids with disabilities end up in the juvenile justice system are: school issues (school failure); and susceptibility (characteristics individuals with disabilities may have and how they’re interpreted). Behaviors the individual exhibits may lead some to believe they’re being a behavioral problem when in reality they are just being who they are. It’s those characteristics that combine to create circumstances for the school to prison pipeline. Kids with disabilities may have language disabilities. Kids who have those language issues are at a greater loss. They get into the system where they are continuously behind in, say as one example, reading. When they get farther behind, they get more frustrated. It’s so frustrating that it leads to the behavioral problem which leads to the suspension which leads to incarceration eventually.”
What do you propose needs to be done in the school?
“It’s not just the school. Schools play a key role but not the only role. It’s a complex issue. It’s multiple factors: the school, the individual, the aspects of the family, It’s really the pathway to prison versus the school (pipeline.) There are lots of components to the pathway. It can be viewed as if the school is just the problem. It may be part of the problem but it’s also part of the solution. School can be one of the best places where good things can happen for kids to stop the pathway to prison. I think diversion programs are an alternative to suspension and expulsion, doing more of restorative kind of practices instead of just going toward suspension or expulsion. Maybe alternatives to that happen within the school system. Think about how you can work with those who have been harmed and those who have done the harming. It can be a more collective, inclusive, collaborative school setting.”
What can we offer our teachers to impact the school to prison pipeline?
“Good programs based on the Council for Exceptional Children’s principles and provide intensive instruction. You should be a master teacher when you’re a special education teacher because you really have to be able to collaborate with adults, collaborate with families. You have to know how to provide individualized services within a larger structure of a general education classroom, behavioral principles of how to work with kids. True usage of PBIS (positive behavioral intervention supports) in a school system, where you have tiered instruction from universal all the way up to tertiary kinds of practices where it gets much more individual as you go along. Using ABA (applied behavior analysis) in schools: how you work with kids (particularly kids who are on the autism spectrum and the behaviors they have in school), having teachers being able to address many of those issues. Working with them to be able to develop positive student teacher relationships. Social emotional learning within schools programs can change how kids learn, improve their learning, and make it a better and safer classroom at the same time.”
Is this an issue to which there is a solution?
“We have solutions. We know a lot about evidence-based practices. If we implement as many evidence-based practices as we can, academic, social, behavioral, social emotional learning, we can save the youth. We have the tools to be able to do it. It’s multiple tools, multiple agencies, multiple components that come together: mental health practices, social services, all integrated to be able to solve the issue. We have the solutions but we have to be willing to put all those aspects together.”
Catherine Strode is Advocacy Denver’s Policy Outreach Specialist. She holds a Masters degree in Public Administration with an emphasis in Health Care Policy. Catherine publishes Policy Perspective, featuring interviews with state policy makers on issues that affect the work and mission of Advocacy Denver.