Social Media: The New School-to-Prison Pipeline for Black Youth

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The school-to-prison pipeline is gaining fuel based on inappropriate behavior on social media. The pipeline is the trend of funneling students from public schools into the criminal justice system. African-American youth have been the most impacted by the pipeline.

Even worse, the U.S. Department of Education has new research that shows the pipeline starts at preschool for black students. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, black students represent 31 percent of school-related arrests. It started with the zero tolerance policies of the 1990s that saw students being criminalized for minor school infractions such as improper dress, disruption of a public school, obstruction, etc.

Although zero tolerance policies have started to fade away, inappropriate conduct on social media is bringing new fuel to the pipeline. New issues such as cyberbullying have traditionally been perceived as an activity that takes place online in the comfort of the cyberbully’s home.

New research indicates that cyberbullying is now crossing over from the online world to the offline world. Guess where those incidents are taking place? At your local school system. School systems have noticed this trend and have started to put in place measures to address these issues.

More than 45 states, plus local governments, have laws and policies that protect victims from bullying and cyberbullying. Some state cyberbullying codes protect victims on the school ground and outside school grounds.

For example, Georgia laws on cyberbullying covers events within the walls of the school, during extracurricular activities, on the school bus and even at designated school bus stops. Therefore, a kid who is engaged in cyberbullying at the bus stop is in violation of the law if caught and turned in to the school administration. Missouri has a new law that considers inflicting emotional distress a felony. Cyberbullying incidents fall under this new law, which requires school systems, under mandatory reporting statutes, to refer incidents to law enforcement.

Unfortunately, most of these laws do not have specific guidelines for schools to follow. Principals are handicapped in determining when to handle a cyberbullying incident at school or when to refer it out to law enforcement. One principal of a Title 1 school in Clayton County, Georgia, told me about a similar situation. He said:

“Man, I get these students that get involved in this cyberbullying beef over the weekend on Instagram. When they come to school on Monday they are ready to fight. I had two young men in my office that I literally had to stand between them to prevent a fight based upon something that happened on social media.”

No school wants to be subjected to a civil lawsuit from a family for not following the law. Thus, most schools refer out to law enforcement and allow juvenile courts to sort it out, which only cements the school-to-prison pipeline.

In most cases, this pipeline causes nonviolent offenders to be introduced and admitted into the criminal justice system. Students can spend up to 72 hours in a juvenile detention center before coming before a judge. That’s 72 hours of meeting and being introduced to antisocial peers at the detention center. That’s 72 hours of learning new criminal activities or a hustle to try when you return home.

In 2004 Clayton County decided to act on their school-to-prison pipeline. Juvenile court Judge Steven Teske noticed a heavy increase in referrals to law enforcement from school officials. This trend started around the same time the Board of Education stationed school resource officers in the school system.

To decrease the number of youth coming to court for school-related nonviolent offenses such as disruption of a public school, the Clayton Juvenile Court collaborated with the juvenile justice system, the school system, social service providers and law enforcement to create a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to limit the number of referrals made to juvenile court.

Minor delinquent acts such as obstruction, disorderly conduct and disruption of public school have to go through a three-step process before the filing of a complaint. For the first complaint, youth receive a written warning based upon their behavior. For the second, youth are referred to school mediation to resolve the problem. A third complaint results in the filing of a complaint to be referred to juvenile court.

Director of Court Services Colin Slay told me “the MOU with the school system has eliminated the school-to-prison pipeline in Clayton County.” Students who are engaged in internet “beefs” that cross over to school are handled through normal school disciplinary procedures and the outlined MOU.

More counties should create policies that mediate social media “beefs,” conflicts, etc. before formal charges are filed and youth end up in the juvenile justice system. As we know, teenagers will be teenagers, but it is also time for adults to be adults and shut down this emerging pipeline that is impacting black youth.

Sedgrid Lewis is the state director of Community Solutions, a nonprofit organization that specializes in evidence-based programs to prevent the school-to-prison pipeline.

10 thoughts on “Social Media: The New School-to-Prison Pipeline for Black Youth

  1. Great article Segrid. Social Media has amplified many of the challenges black youth already faced. Education and awareness is key. I’ve been tasked with creating a proposal for DC Housing in addressing the issues that occur online and how they often spill over offline in their communities. This is great information to reference.

    • Brilliant idea Reginald to go to the housing authority. Taking the knowledge to the community!

  2. I just don’t see this as a “black youth” problem, Seg… It’s a “youth” problem that affects all colors, races, and creeds. Making it about “black youth” will never get the problem solved. It will only make the divide between the races bigger… Thank Obama for all this. Things were getting better day by day until he needed a banner to wave….

    • Wynn,
      Please don’t get it twisted, all youth are impacted by social media and all youth run the risk of being arrested. Im speaking of my experience working with schools and probation departments in the Metro Atlanta area. In Atlanta, black youth are disproportionately targeted for arrest. There are no mediation, parent conferences. or other means to address it. Clayton County has stepped to the plate to institute a policy to prevent all youth from being impacted by teenage mistakes. I hope that other counties in GA and across the south will follow their lead.

  3. Grear Article! Thanks for highlighting this topic. There should be more awareness provided to the public on this new trend. We as parents can be advocates for our kids. We need to get more involved into their school systems to help with creating more intervention programs and not systems used to put our kids into the courts and prisons.

  4. Great article Sedgrid! Thank you for highlighting Clayton County’s School Justice partnership. The MOU was amended in 2013 and now includes all misdemeanors, and I created a restorative justice division in 2010 that includes 9 employees who assist the SRO’s in getting students into restorative practices that also include the victims so that the offender learns empathy and the victim is restored and can feel safe and protected on campus. You are so right, social media has indeed created a new pathway to student arrests (except in Clayton), and cyber bullying is best handled not by criminalizing students, but by teaching them conflict resolution skills and other means that will grow them into positive healthy thinking adults as opposed to adult criminal who got to prison because the adults in their life made poor decisions as well. Great job pointing out the nuance of social media and its impact on the school to prison dilemma.

  5. Shutting down the school to prison pipeline is much more complex than turning a switch from the “on” to the “off” position. It is so complex that the only real way to stop it at this point is by empowering youth to be more restorative in their choices. This is the premise for the workbook “Five Steps to Avoid the School to Prison Pipeline” and the corresponding “5 Steps Project” for schools and communities. I appreciate you tagging “Avoiding The School to Prison Pipeline” Facebook page on Juvenile Justice Information Exchange and would welcome your support as we work with nonprofits in the City of Detroit to towards making the 5 Steps Project an evidence-based program to prevent the school-to-prison pipeline.