The school to prison pipeline

Ella Rhodes reports on the APA symposium at the Annual Conference.

Clinical and Forensic Psychologist Dr Apryl Alexander, also a Clinical Assistant Professor (University of Denver), kicked off an American Psychological Association symposium with a fascinating – if depressing – look at the ‘school to prison pipeline’ in the USA. Policies and procedures introduced at schools unfairly target children from BAME and marginalised backgrounds, leading to more exclusions and eventually pushing children towards the criminal justice system.

Alexander highlighted the criminalisation of normal developmental behaviours such as disobedience, and zero tolerance policies. ‘Two weeks ago in Denver, a seven-year-old was wrestled to the ground and handcuffed,’ Alexander said. 

Ethnicity is key when looking at this pipeline; while black students make up 24 per cent of the public school population in the USA they account for half of those who are suspended or expelled. Many policies in schools unfairly target black students: Alexander gave the example of some schools not allowing children to wear their hair in braids. She also pointed to research showing that children of colour are viewed negatively from a shockingly early age, with black girls being seen as ‘less innocent’ by the age of five. 

Ways to break this cycle include prevention, encouraging cultural competence in teachers, and looking at rehabilitative practices such as restorative justice to keep young children in school to help them through any issues. There are schools in America which have police officers based in them, Alexander said, with little indication schools are safer as a result. Indeed, the American Civil Liberties Union report Cops and No Counsellorsfound that 1.7 million children in America are in schools with police officers but no counsellors; six million with police but no school psychologists. Addressing such disparities would be a great place to start.

Assistant Professor Ediza Garcia (Texas A&M International University) has been working with Latinx college students in improving their mental health literacy. More than 90 per cent of students at Texas AMU in Laredo, on the US-Mexico border, are Latinx and the area has poor coverage for mental health support. Garcia said research has shown that ethnic minority and first generation college students are less likely to seek support for mental health treatment. There are also massive barriers to receiving healthcare in the US, including poverty and cultural and/or language divides.

Building mental health literacy can be one way to help college students who may be struggling. An approach developed by Jorm involves teaching people about common mental health conditions and their symptoms, resources and treatments. Garcia set out with a group of students taking part in a six-week programme, with a week focusing on one of six common mental health problems, and found positive effects of the knowledge the students gained in their willingness to seek help and their knowledge about mental health issues. 

Dr Skyler Jackson, a Postdoctoral Fellow (Yale University) explored the experiences of people who have multiple marginalised identities through a daily diary study. He looked at the impact of intersectional experiences in 131 African American LGB people – any positive or negative experiences of events or situations that were related to someone being both black and LGB. Associate Professor Desiree Vega (University of Arizona) took a qualitative look at bilingual (English and Spanish) school psychologists and their experiences of training.  

Photo: Getty Images

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