Michelle Sicignano, LMSW

Michelle Sicignano, LMSW

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
Twitter Facebook web

The Criminalization of Marginalized Youth

The United States Justice Department took one step forward in the fight against the criminalization of marginalized youth this past Wednesday by filing a law suit “claiming that the due process rights of children are “repeatedly and routinely” violated when arrested for minor offenses, accusing officials of operating a “school to prison pipeline” that singles out blacks and juveniles with disabilities.”

“The ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ refers to the policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”

“Although initially intended to send a “tough on violence” message…zero tolerance policies gradually expanded to cover ambiguous, non-violent offenses such as insubordination and school disturbance…resulting in mandate[d] suspension or expulsion” and “pushed an increasing number of students out of school, often times for minor offenses.” Already marginalized, an astounding number of students are “excluded from school grounds, reported to law enforcement officials, and ultimately face criminal sanctions for activity that took place on school grounds.” Marginalized youth are generally from low-income families, racial minorities, or disabled, and these youth “disproportionately populate the juvenile court, as well as juvenile shelter care, detention, and incarceration facilities….For many special education eligible children swept into the school-to-prison pipeline, a pivotal point is a status offense charge for truancy, ungovernability, or running away. The “school-to-prison pipeline” represents the ways in which the failures of school systems to educate our children contribute to the increase in the juvenile justice and adult prison population.”

The No Child Left Behind Act fed into an already broken system by requiring accountability provisions which created a very large incentive for schools to find ways to not be mandated to account for poor performers. This was largely done by holding back, pushing into special education, or pushing these under-performers out of the system entirely. The model school, which set the standard for the federal No Child Left Behind Act, operated on this very process before becoming the “Texas Miracle.” “Tens of thousands” of students disappeared from school to boost test scores, and the “disappeared” where primarily “students of color” as well as youth with unaddressed mental health issues.

“A troubled domestic economy, the mass unemployment and incarceration of disadvantaged minorities, and resulting fiscal crises in urban public education have shifted school disciplinary policies and practices and staff perceptions of poor students of color in a manner that promotes greater punishment and exclusion of students perceived to be on a criminal justice `track’ and little has been done to correct these failings on a systemic level, leaving a constant supply of youth who are funneled into the justice system by right of default.

Test scores improved while prison populations exploded. Where is a young, uneducated or difficult to educate person to go when the school entrusted to educate makes success impossible due the demands of accountability and finds ways to get rid of “the problem” instead of instituting programs and hiring staff capable of addressing the underlying issues effectively because of budget constraints and the need to show performance markers based on standardized test scores?

Our systems are interconnected. This is a truth, whether we like to see it that way or not. Our education system, judicial system, corporate structure, and healthcare have an interactive part in the creation of this tragedy. One cannot speak of educational reform without addressing prison reform and healthcare reform. Funneling hard to teach kids into prisons as a means of control, or perhaps hiding the systems failings only profits those who own the prisons. Private prisons are governed by corporate laws.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have identified 2,000 high schools in the country(12 percent) responsible for nearly half of the nation’s dropouts. The children attending these “dropout factories” are overwhelmingly minority.” 2000 high schools, out of approximately 37,000 nationwide, are responsible for nearly half of all drop-outs.

So what’s the solution? “We can spot students in elementary school who, if adults do intervene, will be less likely to drop out. Potential dropouts can be identified as early as the fourth and sixth grades by looking at attendance, behavior and, of course, failure in math and English. We can focus our resources on these schools and their students with the goal of turning them around and rescuing hundreds of thousands of children from the cradle to prison pipeline.” We can properly fund appropriate and comprehensive programs designed to educate the whole child and adequately address many of the underlying issues.

The introduction of the new Core Standards Curriculum, adopted by most states, promises to reinvigorate the educational system, however if we fail to address the underlying conditions that have marginalized so many youth already, what are we really accomplishing? Will it only serve to further widen the gap between those who have and those who can from those who are less advantaged? Or will we, as a nation, embrace the opportunity now before us and take on the challenge to educate all of our nation’s children in a comprehensive manner?


Written by Michelle Sicignano, LMSW
SJS Staff Writer


Our authors want to hear from you! Click to leave a comment

Related Posts

Subscribe to the SJS Weekly Newsletter


  1. Michael Serene October 25, 2012
    • michellesicignano October 25, 2012
  2. Michael Serene October 26, 2012
  3. Michael Serene October 27, 2012
  4. Michael Serene October 27, 2012
  5. michellesicignano October 27, 2012
  6. Michael Serene October 27, 2012
  7. michellesicignano October 27, 2012
  8. Michelle Sicignano, LMSW - SJS Staff Writer October 27, 2012
  9. Michael Serene October 28, 2012
  10. Michael Serene October 29, 2012
  11. Michelle Sicignano, LMSW - SJS Staff Writer November 14, 2012
  12. Michael Serene November 20, 2012
  13. Marjorie Ferguspm January 10, 2013

Leave a Reply