Courts, schools, other agencies address school-to-prison pipeline

As the trend for students to come into contact with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems continues to rise, the First District Democrats recently held a forum to address this school-to-prison pipeline.

The event was Sept. 16 in Bothell and featured speakers who shared with attendees the work their respective organizations or agencies are doing to address the issue. The speakers were Dr. Karen Johnson, chair of the Black Alliance of Thurston County; Manka Dhingra, King County deputy prosecutor and senate candidate for the 45th Legislative District; the Rev. Terri Stewart, director and founder of the Youth Chaplancy Coalition; Dr. Chris Bigelow, director of diversity and equity at the Northshore School District and Gina Cumbo, project director of the Center for Children & Youth Justice.


During her remarks, Johnson discussed unconscious bias and how the villainizing and criminalizing of black people have led people to automatically believe they are dangerous, bringing up the many recent incidents in which law enforcement officers have used deadly force against unarmed people of color and have not been charged. She added that Washington is No. 1 when it comes to charging black and brown children with non-violent offenses, later pointing out that while overall crime in Washington has been on the decline, felonies among black and brown offenders has increased.

Despite this, Johnson said black people are brilliant and resilient.

“We are still here,” she noted.

Johnson also discussed the importance of accountability in law enforcement and the importance of de-escalation training.

It is also important, she said, for people to come together if we are going to journey this Earth together.

“We need one another,” she said.


While discussing the King County court system, Dhingra focused on therapeutic alternatives to incarceration.

Some of this work includes crisis intervention training for law enforcement. Dhingra said they have partnered with a local chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness for this training.

Dhingra also touched on the county’s Crisis Solution Center. This center includes a Mobile Crisis Team that provides in-the-moment crisis stabilization and connects people to appropriate services and support, a Crisis Diversion Facility for adults in crisis who need stabilization and referral to appropriate community-based services and Crisis Diversion Interim Services for individuals who need intensive case management upon returning to their home community.

And while Dhingra does not work in the juvenile courts system, she did briefly touch on county programs and services available to minors, such as truancy and education re-engagement programs.

She also mentioned a number of programs for victims of crimes including domestic violence and drug-related crimes.

Another service Dhingra discussed was the county’s Regional Mental Health Court.

“I do not need to tell you that the largest mental institutes is the jail,” she said,

The county also offers a Regional Veterans’ Court, Dhingra said. She recommended people to attend a graduation event for the program as it is very heart filling.


Stewart discussed the work she does with young people in the courts system.

She shared stories about specific youth she has worked with through peacemaking circles. Some of the work that goes into these circles includes the perpetrator writing letters to their victim(s), both the perpetrators’ and victims’ families coming together alongside other members of the community to discuss what led to the crime.

“It takes community,” Stewart said about the healing process. “It’s hard, but we can do this thing.”


As a school district administrator, Bigelow discussed schools’ discipline policies and how disproportionately students of color are affected. He said if “those kids” are being punished more, then they must be the problem, right? Bigelow then asked the audience to think about who is really misbehaving — the kids or the adults.

He shared examples of how students have been sent to an administrator’s office for normal kid behavior such as talking out of turn or raising their hand at the wrong time.

“There’s something wrong, what we’re doing here,” Bigelow said.

He said when the word racism comes up, people think of extreme examples such as swastikas. But the worst kind of racism is institutional.

“We’re too polite to talk about it,” Bigelow said. “But that’s how we learn and grow.”

People can get defensive when they are asked to look at their own racial biases, which he said is not easy to do. But if we do not have these conversations, we will continue to perpetuate these issues, Bigelow said.


Cumbo discussed the issue of truancy in schools and how students missing school for any reason are more likely to fall behind, drop out of school and become disengaged from school.

She also touched on how truancy, which is defined as seven unexcused absences in a month or 10 unexcused absences in a year, can lead to youth — particularly youth of color and those with disabilities — being funneled into the criminal justice system.

Cumbo showed a video featuring community truancy boards and how they can help young people re-engage in school. She added that those who come into contact with these boards are more likely to graduate compared to other truant students.


In addition to listening to the speakers, attendees broke up into small brainstorming groups to discuss topics ranging from police on school campuses and reducing the use of force in community policing, to race and gender and their impacts, to foster care and child welfare.

Jacqueline McGourty, chair of the Issues Committee for FDD, said the idea to hold a forum on this particular topic came from an FDD member who had a friend involved with a program at the Monroe Correctional Complex and felt that community education and outreach is critical to addressing the situation.

“To me, and I think most of our members as we learned more ourselves, the importance of making the community aware of the pipeline and the programs that exist to help stem the flow, was clear,” McGourty said about holding the forum.

She said they hoped attendees took away a better understanding of the fact that a school-to-prison pipeline exists and why it exists as well as what they and the community can do to help.

“I think the event went really well,” McGourty said about the forum. “We are getting requests for more information and we have had numerous thanks and positive feedback, particularly about the quality and impact of the speakers and the programs they described.”


Bothell resident Julia Wales attended the event as following last year’s presidential election, she decided that she needed to be more involved in solutions. She said the issues that are most important to her focus on social justice, equity, racism, sexism, children and youth and education — so the forum seemed to be the perfect event to connect with others trying to make changes in those areas.

“I recognize that as a white, middle-class woman, I am not the expert on many of the issues that are most important to me,” Wales said. “There are folks that have been doing this work for a long time and I went to this event hoping to connect with them, find ways I can help and follow their lead.”

Wales said she learned about several efforts being made to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline — both preventative before law enforcement is involved and as intervention after law enforcement gets involved. She said she was inspired by Johnson’s talk and especially interested in Stewart’s peacemaking circles and was able to connect with her to learn how they can preventatively resolve conflict before law enforcement becomes involved. And as a parent in NSD, she was also interested in what Bigelow had to say about the progress that has been made and what more needs to be done.

“I came away from the talks and discussions feeling like we really need to have these uncomfortable conversations about race and racism in our communities and in our schools,” Wales said. “And I was able to connect with many folks in my community who are already involved in these efforts so that I can support and join them in doing this work.”