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COMMENTARY: Clark County School Justice Partnership offers a more promising approach to school discipline

The Review-Journal’s Sept. 2 editorial, “Easing up on school discipline,” described the recently launched Clark County School Justice Partnership (CCSJP). Yet it presented an uninformed voice that fails to mention how school safety is shaped by changing the school climate.

The editorial downplays years of research on the school-to-prison pipeline, fails to mention the purpose of the partnership and ignores the fact that education research has demonstrated punitive discipline does not work. Creating positive school climates reduces crime. The CCSJP promotes a positive school climate.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a well-documented and well-researched phenomenon. It is defined as the set of policies and actions set in schools that have resulted in an alarming spike in school-based arrests over the past 30 years. This set of procedures leads to poor life outcomes — such as escalated criminal behavior and dropping out of school — for thousands of youth nationally. Even more concerning, the school-to-prison pipeline has had the most detrimental impact on youth who live in poverty and youth of color. The CCSJP is an innovative method of looking at student behavior from a different lens — a lens that promotes safety for all students by keeping kids in school and fostering student success.

The purpose of the CCSJP is to stop criminalizing adolescent behavior. Being a teenager should not be a crime. Engaging in behaviors that, since the beginning of time, have been considered acts of adolescence should not result in arrest or a criminal record or force a student to drop out. We are changing the trajectory for youth in Clark County by working to reduce punitive law enforcement encounters.

Instead of wasting community resources arresting students for skipping school, loud outbursts and minor fist fights, school administrators will be encouraged to handle them. Many of the students who are arrested in schools have their cases diverted by the district attorney to other social services. Arresting students for being adolescents is a gross waste of resources. Furthermore, research has demonstrated that the greatest predictor of criminal behavior is interacting with law enforcement. The CCSJP allows us to use police officers to proactively prevent youth from engaging in actual criminal behavior and to increase feelings of safety and security when interacting with law enforcement.

The CCSJP was strategically designed through partnership with the Clark County Department of Juvenile Justice Services, the Clark County School District, the Clark County district attorney’s office, community stakeholders, national researchers and national experts on youth, behavior, discipline and criminality. This project has been incubating for years. Every step of the development of the CCSJP was thoughtful and deliberate with a focus on what is best for the youth of the Clark County School District.

School climate is a hallmark of school safety. Schools in which students feel connected to their teachers and administrators and where they feel they are treated justly have better climates and, ultimately, better outcomes. This is not opinion, but documented fact. Moving schools from punitive discipline practices to strategies that are aimed at teaching students appropriate behavior cultivates school safety and respect for all parties involved.

Tara C. Raines is an assistant professor in the University of Denver’s child, family and school psychology program.

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