SPLC Launches 'School to Prison Reform Project' to Help At-Risk Children Get Special Education Services, Avoid Incarceration


Expanding its groundbreaking work to keep children out of the "school to prison pipeline," the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has launched a new national initiative to help students obtain services that can mean the difference between graduation and incarceration.

The SPLC's School to Prison Reform Project will be based in New Orleans. Its goal is to ensure that public schools provide special education services required by federal law.

These services are crucial because students with disabilities are at risk of behavioral problems that can land them in detention and threaten their future.

"Children with emotional disturbances and other disabilities, particularly those of color, are being shoved out of schools and into juvenile detention facilities at alarming rates," said Ron Lospennato, director of the SPLC project. "Our goal is to get them the help they need before they enter the justice system so that they can get a proper education and grow up to become productive adults."

Research by the Harvard Civil Rights Project has shown that minority children are heavily overrepresented when it comes to harsh sanctions, such as suspensions, meted out by schools. Nationally, black students are more than twice as likely to be suspended as white students.

Recent studies show that up to 85 percent of children in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, yet only 37 percent had been receiving any kind of services in their school.

Studies also have shown that children with emotional disturbances are particularly at risk:

They have the worst graduation rate of all students with disabilities. Nationally, only 35 percent graduate from high school, compared to 76 percent for all students.

Seventy-three percent of those who drop out are arrested within five years.

They are twice as likely as other students with disabilities to be living in a correctional facility, halfway house, drug treatment center or on the street after leaving school.

They are almost twice as likely as students with other disabilities to become teenage mothers.

They are more than three times as likely as other students to be arrested before leaving school.

SPLC President Richard Cohen noted the importance of basing the project in New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina exposed the country's racial and class disparities two years ago.

"In opening the New Orleans office, we are sending a message, loud and clear, that the key to addressing these inequities is ensuring that all children, including children with disabilities and children of color, receive the education they deserve and are guaranteed under federal law," Cohen said.

The School to Prison Reform Project grew out of the SPLC's legal work representing children with disabilities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

In Louisiana, the SPLC already has reached settlements with the Jefferson Parish and the East Baton Rouge school systems to ensure that quality special education services are provided to as many as 1,300 students. Another complaint in the Caddo Parish school system is pending. The SPLC also has reached a settlement with the school system in Holmes County, Miss.

The School to Prison Reform Project will work with education, disability rights and juvenile justice advocacy groups across the country. An advisory group of social scientists, academics and child advocates will help guide the project.

In an effort to promote similar work in other states, the SPLC recently provided grants to disability and children's rights groups in Florida, California and Kentucky.

"We want to take these efforts to a national audience," Lospennato said.

The project also aims to help all students by promoting the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program. This program, which is implemented school-wide, emphasizes the reinforcement of positive social behaviors rather than simply punishing bad behaviors.

Lospennato and the SPLC staff will work with Jim Comstock-Galagan, the founder and executive director of the Southern Disability Law Center. Galagan has been a partner in the SPLC's special education advocacy work.

Lospennato is the former long-time legal director of the Disabilities Rights Center in Concord, N.H.

Before launching the initiative, the SPLC convened a meeting in New Orleans with civil rights and special education advocates to share ideas. Participants included the Southern Disability Law Center, the ACLU, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, the Juvenile Law Center, the Harvard Civil Rights Project, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, education and juvenile justice groups, and numerous protection and advocacy organizations.