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The so-called “school to prison pipeline” — which has been the subject of several Center for Public Integrity stories —was the focus of new attention on Capitol Hill Wednesday. Sen. Dick Durbin presided over the first Congressional hearing on schools suspending students and sending them to juvenile-justice authorities for minor discipline problems.

“For many young people, our schools are increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system,” Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and assistant majority leader, said in his introductory remarks. “This phenomenon is a consequence of a culture of ‘zero tolerance’ that is widespread in our schools and is depriving many children of their fundamental right to an education.”

Durbin said he hoped the hearing, archived here, would highlight the troubling consequences of sending kids to court and placing them in the juvenile system for relatively minor reasons. He also called on speakers who testified that it’s possible to keep schools safe – and boost kids’ engagement in school – by cutting referrals to the justice system and instead employing counseling and innovative discipline methods.

The hearing was before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.

The room was packed with hundreds of community organizers from around the country who are especially concerned about the disproportionate impact that school police citations and arrests are having on African-American and Latino students. Speakers talked of very young students being handcuffed and arrested for tantrums, or forced to go to court for behavior that used to land them in the principal’s office, or in counseling.

“This is clearly an issue of great concern to all of us,” said Deborah Delisle, the Department of Education’s Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education. Studies in various jurisdictions, she testified, have revealed that most suspensions and referrals to court are not for serious violent offenses.

In a series of stories over the last year, the Center for Public Integrity has reported on an escalation in school suspensions and expulsions for seemingly minor indiscretions.

Reports on Kern County in California’s Central Valley looked into why the sparsely populated region had been expelling more students annually than Los Angeles, and how the phenomenon hit black and Latino students hard.

Another series of reports analyzed the Los Angeles Unified School District Police Department’s citation records for 2009-2011. The data, which hadn’t previously been released, showed that more than 40 percent of tickets – many of them for fighting – were issued to students 14 and younger and were concentrated in lower-income middle schools.

A Los Angeles student, Michael Davis, submitted written testimony to the subcommittee. “Even for minor things,” he said, “it seems like police are always involved in our lives at school. It’s a big part of how we get pushed out of school. When you get treated like this it is demeaning.”

A Center report on police posted in New York City schools examined officer conduct and accusations of abusive treatment of students. A report on Mississippi looked at federal justice officials’ allegations that students’ rights were violated because of referrals from school that landed them directly in juvenile facilities.

Judith A. Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project, a national civil-rights organization, told the subcommittee in her testimony Wednesday that in many school districts today “pushing and shoving in the schoolyard is now a battery, and talking back is now disorderly conduct.”

Durbin said it was important to look at why schools might resort to heavy-handed methods— perhaps because they lacked training for staff, or were reeling from budget and staff cuts and have too few counselors.

The Department of Justice has focused efforts on offering grants and training for school districts to improve methods of “supportive” school discipline, said Melodee Hanes, acting administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Chief Judge Steven Teske of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., recounted in his testimony that one-third of his cases stemmed from schools when he took the bench in 1999. By 2004, he said, 92 percent of the 1,400 referrals that came to his court were misdemeanor offenses based on school incidents of disruption, disorderly conduct and school fights.

Negotiations with Clayton school officials led to an agreement that such cases only be referred to court after a student had been warned once, and then referred to a conflict-skills workshop for a second offense.

Teske credits the agreement with helping to increase graduation rates and improve students’ relations with school police.

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Susan Ferriss joined CPI in 2011 and directs its immigration project. As a Cox Newspapers Latin America...