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Meeting the Back-to-School Challenge: Get Involved!

September 07, 2021
By investing in proven solutions and partnering with the community, the education system can avert potential tragedy in 2021-22 and establish a new normal in our education system that fosters success, promotes equity, and recognizes the realities of adolescent behavior and brain development.

The reopening of schools this fall marks a pivotal turning point for the U.S. education system, with important implications for youth justice.

That’s the conclusion of my new report for the Sentencing Project, entitled: Back-to-School Action Guide: Re-Engaging Students and Closing the School-to-Prison Pipeline.

Thanks to a $122 billion infusion of federal relief funds, I found, educators, advocates, and community leaders will have unprecedented opportunities in 2021-22 to reduce school arrests and suspensions, and to keep students in school and on track for future success. However, given the widespread disconnection, learning loss, and tragedy American children suffered during the pandemic, the moment will also be fraught with pitfalls.

Given these high stakes, juvenile justice leaders need a seat at the table in discussion over how schools utilize available funds. Both JJ system professionals and community advocates have to make their voices heard. Those who care about youth justice must step up and get involved in supporting court-involved young people and other students who – due to the pandemic – are now at heightened risk of school failure and justice system involvement.


Since the pandemic began, US school children’s pace of learning has slowed considerably, and millions of children have become disengaged from school. The damage has been especially acute for Black and Latinx students, and for those in low-income households, English language learners, and children with disabilities. The pandemic has created or worsened mental health problems for a substantial share of adolescents, and it has interrupted teen-age children’s healthy adolescent development. As a result, experts say, schools will likely see substantially elevated behavior and attendance problems in the coming school year.

How schools respond to these challenges will decide the educational futures for millions of children. Absent a concerted effort to reject over-policing of public schools, many young people will be thrust quickly into the justice system through unwarranted school arrests. Also, if schools sustain their overreliance on exclusionary discipline and fail to re-engage and support vulnerable students, many more youths will exit school prematurely, heightening their likelihood of future arrests. These failures would exacerbate racial and ethnic disparities and deepen the difficulties faced by children with special educational needs, and those living in poverty – the very children who have suffered most during the pandemic.


While these dangers are real, the current moment is even more noteworthy for the immense opportunities available to schools and communities nationwide. Combined with the $68 billion allocated to public schools in the COVID stimulus laws enacted in 2020, the $122 billion included in the American Rescue Plan represent the largest infusion of federal funding for elementary and secondary education in U.S. history.

If schools and communities invest these resources wisely and build on the emerging momentum to reject counterproductive zero tolerance policies, and if they replace school police with counselors and community partners, they can both foster success among returning students AND engineer an overdue shift away from ineffective and inequitable practices that have long plagued our education and justice systems.

My report highlights several promising and proven strategies to reform discipline practices and close the school-to-prison pipeline, and it points to many effective practices to identify, engage and support students at high risk for school failure or dropout.


By investing in these solutions and partnering with the community, the education system can avert potential tragedy in 2021-22 and establish a new normal in our education system that fosters success, promotes equity, and recognizes the realities of adolescent behavior and brain development.

But, after more than a year of isolation, learning loss, missed adolescent development opportunities and trauma, we cannot take the chance that many young people might be left behind in the current school year – or pushed into the justice system. And we can’t take the chance that the bounty of federal relief money might not be used to finally put an end to counterproductive school policing and zero tolerance policies in our schools.

This blog was written by The Sentencing Project’s Senior Research Fellow Dick Mendel for JDAIconnect, an online community for juvenile justice reformers to talk, find resources and learn.

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