The role of schools in sustaining juvenile justice system inequality

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Children’s school experiences may contribute in many ways to disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system, writes Paul Hirschfield. For example, research shows that black students who violate school rules are more often subject to out-of-school suspensions, which heighten their risk of arrest and increase the odds that once accused of delinquency, they’ll be detained, formally processed, and institutionalized for probation violations. Hirschfield examines two types of processes through which schools may contribute to disproportionate minority contact with the justice system. Micro-level processes affect delinquents at the individual level, either because they’re distributed unevenly by race/ethnicity or because they affect youth of color more adversely. For example, suspensions can be a micro-level factor if biased principals suspend more black youth than white youth. Macrolevel processes, by contrast, operate at the classroom, school, or district level. For example, if predominantly black school districts are more likely than predominantly white districts to discipline students by suspending them, black students overall will be adversely affected, even if each district applies suspensions equitably within its own schools. Some policies and interventions, if properly targeted and implemented, show promise for helping schools reduce their role in justice system inequality, Hirschfield writes. One is schoolbased restorative justice practices like conferencing and peacemaking circles, which aim to reduce misbehaviors by resolving conflicts, improving students’ sense of connection to the school community, and reinforcing the legitimacy of school authorities. Another is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a multi-tiered, team-based intervention framework that has proven to be effective in reducing disciplinary referrals and suspensions, particularly in elementary and middle schools. However, he notes, if successful programs like these are more accessible to well-off schools or to white students, they may actually exacerbate inequality, even as they reduce suspension for blacks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11-35
Number of pages25
JournalFuture of Children
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Health(social science)
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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