Breaking the school-to-prison pipeline at forefront of student-led symposium

Researchers, educators, social workers, court personnel, students and community members will meet at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law on Feb.11 for a symposium designed to discuss how to reverse Utah’s troubling school- to-prison pipeline trend.

The second annual ‘Breaking the Pipeline’ symposium on Feb.11 will explore how recent and upcoming legislative reforms impact the school-to-prison pipeline-a trend of pushing out vulnerable students from school. pipleline

The symposium comes in the aftermath of a report issued by the law school’s Public Policy Clinic,  “From Fingerpaint to Fingerprints: The School-to-Prison Pipeline in Utah,” in which researchers found that school disciplinary actions handed down to students at Utah public schools disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities enrolled in the state’s public education system.

The statistics in the report are startling.  For example, students identified with disabilities are twice as likely to receive a school disciplinary action as students without a disability.  Studies show that suspension and expulsion rates are closely correlated with dropout and delinquency rates, and have tremendous economic costs. Referrals to law enforcement and arrests at school are the harshest forms of school disciplinary action and expose students directly to the juvenile justice system, according to the researchers. Such students often become part of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” or STPP, wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems through a combination of overly harsh zero-tolerance school policies and the increased involvement of law enforcement in schools.

Since the report was issued, law students have collaborated with community partners and have organized several initiatives to try to shed light on the issue. Also as a result of the students’ prior research and work from community partners, last year Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, introduced legislation aimed at addressing the school-to-prison pipeline in Utah schools in the wake of the public policy clinic’s report. This year, Hollins will be working on expanding the reporting required on last year’s legislation.

In addition, an overhaul of the juvenile justice reform is in the works for the upcoming legislative session. The reforms address issues contributing and connected to the school to prison pipeline. A first look of a report by local organizations revealing racial disparities in Utah’s juvenile justice system will be presented at the symposium.

“Utah’s school-to-prison pipeline is a problem that needs to be resolved, and to reverse this cycle, we should encourage the use of restorative justice practices, school resource officer-specific training programs, employment contracts that clearly define school resource officers’ responsibilities, and the use of evidence-based programs,” said Tyler Bugden, a second-year law student, one of the event’s organizers and a member of the S.J. Quinney College of Law’s Social Justice Student Initiative.  “Utah’s new school resource officer law requires these training programs and employment contracts, but Utah needs to show its support for students and educators by investing in evidence-based programs.”

“There has been growing awareness on this trend since the release of the report by the public policy clinic and work on how school resource officers play into the problem. However, there is still so much to be done to end other policies and attitudes that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Kathy Abarca, coordinator of Racially Just Utah and contributor to the juvenile justice report. “Our hope is that the symposium will help attendees understand the current school-to-prison pipeline landscape in light of recent and upcoming reforms, what work remains to be done, and time to make personal connections with others who care.”

The symposium is collaboration between law students, the S.J. Quinney College of Law’s Social Justice Student Initiative, Racially Just Utah, the ACLU of Utah, the Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys, and Salt Lake Peer Court.

The event will be held at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, 383 South University Street. Registration is requested for the event, which starts at 9 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. Lunch will be provided. For more information, contact