USF professor: Program will help stunt school-to-prison pipeline

Updated January 2


The phrase "school-to-prison pipeline" has been used to describe school practices that result in children, especially children in poverty, landing in the juvenile justice and criminal justice system.

Suspension and expulsion from school are one of those practices that contribute to a future path of dropping out of school and engaging in substance abuse and criminal activity.

Young children who are suspended or expelled from early childhood programs are more likely to be suspended in their later school years. Students who experience suspension and expulsion are also 10 times more likely to drop out of school, have poor academic outcomes, and have contact with the criminal justice system.

Disturbing national data suggests that the onset of the "school-to-prison pipeline" might begin with the youngest children in public education. The federal Department of Education has reported rates of preschool expulsion that are three times higher than in K-12, and exhibit disturbing racial and gender disparities with children of color and boys being suspended and expelled more frequently.

Some states and communities have conducted their own research and found that their rates of suspensions and expulsions occur at even higher rates than nationally reported. Even more alarming, many of these local programs report the suspension and expulsion of infants and toddlers.

Much of the challenging behavior associated with suspension and expulsion is due to a complex array of social, environmental and biological causes. Preschools equipped with the latest effective interventions are the best hope for helping children experience productive futures.

States, school districts, and communities are now establishing policies that restrict the use of suspensions and expulsions with young children. The Florida Office of Early Learning has issued guidance to childcare programs, early learning coalitions, and professionals about the need to implement best practices that promote effective interventions and to prevent or limit the use of expulsion with young children.

Once the practices associated with this guidance are in place for current children in the system, it is important that teachers, and families have the capacity to provide effective interventions to all young children in order to prevent and minimize behavior problems.

In October, the University of South Florida was awarded $5.5 million from the federal Office of Special Education Programs of the Department of Education to establish "The National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations" to address this critical social issue facing young children, their families and teachers. The center involves faculty and staff from USF, the University of Colorado-Denver, and Vanderbilt University.

The Center aims to support early care and education programs that focus on the promotion of social and emotional competencies, the prevention of behavior challenges in children, and individualized interventions for children with persistent challenging behavior. Research has shown that programs that implement the Pyramid Model report that suspensions and expulsions are reduced or eliminated and that teachers develop the capacity to meet the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of all children in their care.

The Center also will focus on building the capacity of states, and programs to implement and scale-up implementation of effective practices that ensure immediate positive social, emotional, and behavioral outcomes for young children as well as to increase the chances of a positive future.

Lise Fox is a professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies and the Co-Director of the Florida Center for Inclusive Communities, the University of South Florida Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.