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By Nick Wical, research analyst, Center on Youth Justice

Eighty-seven percent of schools have some form of zero-tolerance policy in place for responding to alcohol- and drug-related behaviors, for example, and 91 percent use the policies in cases of weapons possession on campus, according to a 1998 report by the U.S. Department of Education National Center for Education Statistics. Moreover, these policies are increasingly being used to respond to less severe behaviors—those that, in the past, would have been handled by school administrators or teachers on a case-by-case basis. For example, a 2011 study by the Council of State Governments found that nine times out of 10, students in Texas were suspended or expelled for violations of a school’s discretionary conduct code, such as fighting, as opposed to infractions that compromised school safety, such as weapons possession.

Punitive school disciplinary policies carrying mandatory penalties often result in removal from school,  leading to increased drop-out rates and decreases in educational, social, and civic opportunities. Some policy makers have suggested that these practices also contribute to greater delinquency and criminal activity, creating what they call a “school-to-prison pipeline” that propels young people into the juvenile and adult justice systems.  As policy makers seek to assess the validity of the school-to-prison pipeline idea, researchers in the field have pointed to the need for rigorous, longitudinal research on this phenomenon to clarify how school policies influence crime and delinquency outcomes over the short and long term.

In 2011, Vera’s Center on Youth Justice (CYJ) received a grant from the Spencer Foundation to begin addressing the dearth of research on the effects of punitive school policies. CYJ researchers are examining data from the National Longitudinal Study for Adolescent Health (Add Health)—a nationally representative longitudinal study of adolescents in grades seven to 12 in the United States during the 1994-1995 school year—to determine how disciplinary policies and other school climate factors are related to delinquency, criminal behavior, and justice system involvement among youth. They are also exploring how these school characteristics intersect with other influences on youth—such as family, peers, and community—to affect crime and justice outcomes. The researchers are using quantitative statistical techniques that include hierarchical linear modeling and propensity score matching. The Add Health study offers an unusually broad range of data on topics including school practices and youth behavior from a variety of perspectives, including youth, parents, and school administrators. 

Vera is conducting this research at a critical time, as jurisdictions across the country are increasingly working to limit the reach of the juvenile and criminal justice systems. In particular, officials are striving to develop and implement strategies that safely divert young people from justice system involvement while keeping them engaged in school and in their communities. In order to do this effectively and thoughtfully, however, localities need to understand the trajectories youth follow into the juvenile and criminal justice systems and what factors influence those trajectories.