The World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. In the wake of this declaration, many schools shifted to “distance learning” with hopes to curb the spread of the disease. Two years later, most states have relaxed Covid precautions, and most schools have returned to in-person learning. Since the return to in-person learning, an examination of school-based complaints in North Carolina suggests that remote learning highlighted the systemic issues with the school-to-prison pipeline.
The “school-to-prison pipeline” channels children from public schools into the criminal justice systems. School infractions met with zero-tolerance policies have resulted in the “suspensions, expulsions, and arrests of tens of millions of public school students.” Student suspension is directly linked to a higher likelihood of dropping out, which in turn exposes children to extreme risks of incarceration. And children who get involved with the juvenile justice system at an earlier age because of zero-tolerance policies are more likely to be involved with the criminal system as adults.
The tendency to remove children from school and push them into juvenile justice programs—like all issues with the criminal justice system—disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, LGBTQ+ communities, lower socioeconomic communities, disabled persons, and persons struggling with mental health.
Since the start of remote learning, North Carolina has seen drastic decreases in the number of school-based juvenile delinquency claims. Elizabeth Thompson wrote on this statistical trend for North Carolina Health News, and the following is a summarization of her findings:
Though the total number of school-based complaints did decrease over the past decade, thanks in part to reforms aimed at disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline, school-based complaints remained roughly half of overall complaints.
But in the 2019-2020 school year, when children in North Carolina shifted to remote learning, school-based complaints dropped “to about 30% of total complaints.” And “over 70% of North Carolina counties saw a decrease in school-based complaints.” In 2020-2021, the first full year of remote learning for some schools, “school-based complaints sank to just 7% of overall complaints.”
Virginia Fogg, attorney for Disability Rights North Carolina suspects the complaints dropped because children “haven’t been in school, they couldn’t get suspended. They couldn’t get referred.” Thompson created an incredibly telling chart to visualize this trend.
A decrease from nearly half to 7% suggests that remote learning had a definite impact on school-based complaints.
When children were sent to remote learning they were also sent away from “School Resource Officers” (SRO) and other disciplinary policies. SROs are law enforcement officers located on school campuses. Statistically, SROs are more discipline focused than school administrators. Students that attend schools with SROs are more likely to be “arrested and referred to the criminal justice system.” When children participated in remote learning, SROs did not have the same access they did to students compared to an in-person environment. Children were also removed from “zero-tolerance” policies that the majority of public schools utilize. Zero-tolerance policies predetermine consequences for specific actions, without any consideration for “why” a student did what they did. When students attend classes in-person, referrals for punishment under the umbrella of a zero-tolerance policy may lead to suspension, expulsion, or a referral to an SRO, thereby taking a child out of the classroom and exposing them to the criminal justice system. Originally, zero-tolerance policies aimed to prevent only the “most serious” criminal behavior: firearms and illicit drugs on school campuses. But over time, these zero-tolerance policies have devolved into absolutely ridiculous suspensions—such as twirling a pencil or “finding” a pocket knife and turning it into a teacher.
Clearly, taking children away from this system of punishment significantly impacted their school-based exposure to the criminal justice system. But sending children home for remote learning is not a long-term solution. As in-person learning becomes the default again, many children return to school with an increased risk of entering the school-to-prison pipeline. The same pandemic that cut school-based complaints for a few years also exacerbated risk factors such as food and housing insecurity as well as increased stress and anxiety levels in children. Additionally, across the nation, legislatures target LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities.
Children already at a statistical disadvantage will face even more challenges in schools and consequently school punishment tailored to disproportionately affect them.
The pandemic’s freeze on school-based complaints should glaringly demonstrate that a major factor to the school-to-prison pipeline is the current system of student punishment within schools. To fix this issue long-term requires a serious reassessment of zero-tolerance policies and the use of SROs.