Do youth end up in the justice system because they disengage from school?

Are youth who are disengaged from school more likely to enter the juvenile justice system – and does this vary for youth of different races and ethnicities?

That was the question UNC Charlotte professor Dr. Susan McCarter set out to answer. Using data from the Institute for Social Capital, an integrated data system that’s part of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, McCarter tracked out-of-school suspensions, unexcused absences and felony bookings for students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

The ISC resources allowed her to anonymously associate data on student suspensions and absences with booking data from the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office. Using suspensions and unexcused absences as a proxy for school disengagement, McCarter and her research team were able to assess whether there was a strong relationship between disengaging from school and subsequent justice system involvement.

Their conclusion, published recently in a paper on the “school-to-prison-pipeline in the Journal of Social Service Research: Despite the fact that white kids had equal or higher rates of school disengagement, students of color were far more likely to have felony records as compared to their white peers.

“The way our kids are being processed in the system is affected by the color of their skin,” said McCarter.

[Read the full paper online here: Addressing the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Examining Micro- and Macro-Level Variables that Affect School Disengagement and Subsequent Felonies]

As the researchers found in their study: “African American students are either less likely or equally as likely to be ‘disengaged from school’ as White students, yet they are significantly more likely to experience a felony booking…Most importantly, our findings seem to challenge the differential behavior narrative that African American students are more likely to become disengaged and partly for this reason, enter the (school-to-prison pipeline).”

McCarter suggests that these findings point to the need to examine how school discipline is meted out. The increasing numbers of law enforcement officers in schools, as a consequence of the desire for greater safety in the era of school shootings, also means disciplinary matters are more likely to become judicial matters, than in the past.

And McCarter contends we need to examine how systemic biases and structural racism play a part in the school-to-prison pipeline – not just individual student behaviors.

“Our findings suggest that disrupting the (school-to-prison pipeline) will require focus on more than micro-level, individual behaviors such as school disengagement and school-based offenses and instead begin to address the impact of micro- level, individual extra-legal variables as well as macro-level policies, practices, and biases,” wrote McCarter, et al.

The Institute for Social Capital collects data from dozens of governmental and nonprofit agencies in the region. That allows researchers to look for connections between datasets they couldn’t otherwise see.

“The Institute for Social Capital’s Integrated Data System is a unique tool to be able to ask and answer these types of questions,” said Justin Lane, interim associate director at the ISC. “The ability to take seemingly disparate datasets that do not communicate with one another – in this case education and criminal justice – allows researchers to glean a more comprehensive view of individuals, how they interact with different systems, and how they are processed through various systems.”