You might have heard of the school-to-prison pipeline, where students of color or of low socioeconomic status are more likely to become incarcerated due to the disproportionately harsh discipline found in schools. In Riverside County, California, one program has come under fire as critics say that it exacerbates this problem.
Riverside County has established the Youth Accountability Team Program, (YAT program) run by the local probation department, to counsel ‘at risk’ youth and administer six-months of supervision, designed to prevent them from engaging in criminal activity. But the ACLU has filed a lawsuit alleging that the program fails to inform students and their parents that the program actually institutes punishment far beyond any basic school disciplinary program. The program has been accused of being used for things that are hardly considered disciplinary issues, much fewer crimes – things like earning bad grades or being late to class have been punished by the program. One student was referred to the program for missing class and being ‘easily persuaded by others.’ Other students have been referred for mere disrespect to teachers or their fellow students.
The suit also alleges that participants in the program are usually not given sufficient information before they sign a contract which allows a government entity to subject the student to monitoring, drug testing, and searches. The program has also been used against students of color, leading critics to argue that the program is instituted discriminately. Black students comprise about 16 percent of the student population in California but represented over one-third of the number of students who had been suspended or expelled, according to the Office for Civil Rights. Black girls are suspended at six times the rate of white girls, and twice that of white boys. The bias is already there, the ACLU argues. The YAT program just makes it worse.
Because of the scope of the YAT program, lawyers have claimed that it is a violation of students’ 4th Amendment rights because they frequently do not give a knowing, voluntary consent to things like searches. Law enforcement officials have admitted that the students ‘get into the system’ by having their fingerprints and photographs taken, and the former D.A. relished the idea, saying that all kinds of surveillance could be done without permission from a judge – including wire-tapping telephones. All of these matters tend to compound the problems leading to the school to prison pipeline.
Advocates of the 17-year old program (currently instituted in 17 California counties) argue that it has had only positive impacts, and has successfully diverted students from the criminal justice system. But students who were actually involved with YAT report a different perspective, alleging that instead of mentorship, they are subjected to monitoring and interrogation, often during school hours, forcing them to miss class. The YAT program also maintains records of its students beyond the conclusion of the program. A student’s failure to complete the program successfully could be used against him or her in the future if they are found to have committed a crime later on.
Overall, the YAT program is arguably ineffective. It imposes far harsher punishments in a far more discriminatory fashion than regular school discipline. In fact, it often includes more strict requirements than juvenile probation. There are multiple approaches to combating the school-to-prison pipeline. Overall, the YAT program appears to be a bad one.