AUSTIN, Texas — “Zero- tolerance” policies that rely heavily on suspensions and expulsions hinder teens who have been arrested from completing high school or pursuing a college degree, according to a new study from The University of Texas at Austin.
In Chicago, 25,000 male adolescents are arrested each year. One quarter of these arrests occurred in school, according to the Chicago Police Department. The stigma of a public arrest can haunt an individual for years — ultimately stunting academic achievement and transition into adulthood, says David Kirk, associate professor in the Department of Sociology and the Population Research Center.
The study, published in the January 2013 issue of Sociology of Education, indicates that punitive school policies — more so than social and psychological factors — pose significant barriers to educational attainment for students with criminal records.
“Being officially designated a ‘criminal’ changes the way educational institutions treat students,” Kirk says. “In the interest of accountability and school safety, arrested students may be pushed out of high school through exclusionary policies.”
Using data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, Kirk and co-author Robert Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard University, analyzed 659 adolescents in Chicago public schools between 1995 and 2002. To measure arrest records, neighborhood demographics and school statistics, they collected data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Chicago Police Department, the Illinois State Police and Chicago Public Schools.
As part of the study, the researchers measured the adolescents’ frequency of criminal offending, family incomes, peer deviance, grade-point averages, neighborhood demographics and school quality. Among otherwise equivalent adolescents, 73 percent of arrestees dropped out of high school compared with 51 percent of those not arrested — a substantial difference of 22 percentage points. Only 18 percent of arrested teens with high school diplomas or GED certification later enrolled in four-year colleges compared with 34 percent of similar non-arrestees.
“Students may drop out of school or opt not to enter college following arrest because they assess, perhaps correctly, that the touted benefits of education are not likely to materialize given the stigma of a criminal record,” Kirk says. “Though they might not even be conscious of it, teachers and advisers tend to think of arrested teens as ‘problem students,’ and focus more of their time on the students with promising futures while alienating problem students.”
In addition to rejection from teachers, parents and peers, students who have been arrested face a series of academic roadblocks as they navigate their way through the criminal justice system. This interruption significantly limits their competitiveness in the college admission and financial aid process.
This life-course trap raises troubling questions about the interaction of the criminal justice and educational systems, Kirk says. The exclusion and resulting educational failure of stigmatized youths creates a pipeline to prison from many inner-city schools.
“Urban schools face an enormous challenge in fostering a safe learning environment while trying to provide an education to at-risk students,” Kirks says. “Although exclusionary policies are intended to keep classrooms safe and productive, schools must develop better programs for encouraging at-risk students to re-engage in the schooling process.”