Justice in action: How we can address the school-to-prison pipeline

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A guest post by Julian Vasquez Heilig

Why are we sending droves of young Black and Brown students into the school-to-prison pipeline via our harsh discipline policies when there are better alternatives?

In this newly published chapter in the Handbook of Urban Educational Leadership, we examine a unique peer run youth court at an urban middle school to contextualize social justice in action. The youth court was developed through a collaborative partnership with the local university’s law school and the administrators and teachers of a high poverty, high minority inner city middle school in Texas. Social justice leaders from both institutions identified a troubling trend: students from the middle school were being increasingly tracked into the juvenile justice system. Relying on the theoretical principles of social justice leadership, we explore the principal and school leaders’ implementation of the youth court and their decisions and challenges over three years of the program’s operation. In addition, we delved into the design of the program’s core curriculum based on a restorative justice model that is built upon the foundations of social justice: inclusion and respect. With the backdrop of punitive disciplinary policies, we highlight the courage and commitment of school leaders to go against the grain and fashion an alternative disciplinary program that is significantly changing the trajectories of at-risk youth.

What is a Youth Court?      

The youth court model in many ways mirrors traditional adult courts. Teachers, school officials or police can offer juveniles the option of youth court following their arrest, or after referrals. To qualify for the youth court, juveniles must admit guilt. The youth court is responsible for determining the consequences of the action, taking into account any material put before it by the juvenile or other parties. The entire court, including judge, attorneys, jurors, bailiff and clerk are student peers. If a juvenile declines to go to youth court, he or she may be subject to a referral to juvenile court, a criminal record and the penalties that may be imposed including fines and possible confinement to a juvenile detention center (Poch, 2000).

According to the research, the main goal of youth court and what distinguishes it from traditional courts is its attempt to prevent the criminalization of students by directing them away from the formal intake of the juvenile justice system. With youth court, they will not have a criminal record nor be subjected to the more constraining conditions imposed by a real court of justice. Youth courts create a different pathway for addressing student misconduct. In a sense, they reject traditionally held views about the management of student behavior and more importantly, the superiority of the teacher and administrator to determine appropriate consequences for students.

The youth court model is based on a restorative justice underpinning (Godwin, 2001). Restorative justice in turn, is supported by core restoration values. These values reflect the underlying beliefs that: 1) children are rich resources that can benefit communities; 2) young people are educators’ social equals; 3) children can develop problem-solving skills, pro-social character traits, and healthy self-concepts; 4) children’s physical, educational, social, spiritual, and emotional needs must be met; 5) families are the best environments for healthy development of children, but everyone can help; and 6) every child succeeds; no child fails (Brendtro, Ness, & Mitchell, 2001, pp. 156-158).
The supporters of the peer run youth court believe that a discipline model run by youth will be more effective in addressing problem behavior and deterring future misconduct. The architects of youth courts strongly design their programs in an effort to decrease referrals to the juvenile courts and ultimately decrease problem behavior as students take responsibility not only for their own actions, but also for those of their fellow students through their participation in a student run system (Ashworth et al., 2008). As youth courts continue to take shape around the country, the assumptions of its advocates seem to be true. They are indeed, an alternative to the proverbial school to prison pipeline (Authors, 2011).

A youth court was firmly established at Wilson Middle School (pseudonym) as an alternative to the school to prison pipeline. Most of the literature on this phenomenon has been largely descriptive, documenting the problems with the system but offering little by way of solutions. For the leaders of the Wilson youth court, action was the only solution. They developed youth court specifically as a tool to combat the school to prison pipeline and every leader interviewed articulated a clear connection between the program and the school to prison pipeline.

A number of the school administrators indicated how important youth court was as an alternative to traditional punitive options that are commonplace in the Lone Star State and elsewhere. The Wilson youth court truly is a solution for those struggling to find positive ways of dealing with problematic student behavior. As one vice principal honestly proffered, “I don’t know what we would do without youth court. It gives us an option.” The leaders that rely on youth court rely on it as a real mechanism for change. It is not just another program or silver bullet flying by— it is a restorative justice solution for so many students whose traditional options are far less than ideal.


When social justice is placed at the core of how school leaders operate and function, a paradigm shift must occur. The cultural and organizational aspects of schools and communities must also fundamentally change. This requires a strong sense of will and purpose. Paradigm shifts, such as limiting punitive disciplinary approaches, are not easy in the current “no excuses” educational policy environment. To facilitate notion of restorative justice in disciplinary policy, school leaders need to identify not just their goals but the foundations of those goals. A surface understanding will not suffice. Change in school disciplinary policy requires a fully informed consciousness, a true equity consciousness. School leaders must serve as change agents, helping others to recognize, access and buttress the abilities of each student and providing each one with the opportunity to succeed via school disciplinary policy.

Instigating a paradigm shift from punitive to restorative school disciplinary policy can be a slow and painful process but important improvements can and do take place (Author, 2011). At the Wilson youth court, change is happening as the program evolves and expands. The positive school response from the teachers and students taking part in the program is paving the way for the court to be scaled up and operationalized at another school. This will provide important comparative data for the program and help substantiate what is already observed by school leaders at Wilson Middle School— students are staying in class and learning not being excluded from instruction and set on the path to dropping out, or worse, sitting in a county jail cell. Students are also learning about what it means to build relationships and how to foster trust and respect in the classroom— in their school and beyond.

The vision of Wilson principal is having a ripple effect. Seeing the strengths of his students, rather than their deficits, he was determined to provide them with the tools they needed to succeed, to stay in school and to never head down the destructive path to prison. Thus, the youth court is not just an alternative discipline program— it is something much greater— a reflection, an inspiration to greater ideals of social justice in majority minority urban middle schools. The youth court is school reform in action and exemplifies how the tireless dedication school and community leaders working together can lead to social justice in action and stem the school-to-prison pipeline.

This post originally appeared on Cloaking Inequality, and was republished with permission. Follow Julian Vasquez Heilig on Twitter: @professorjvh. 


Julian Vasquez Heilig is an award-winning researcher and teacher. He is currently a Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies and the Director of the Doctorate in Educational Leadership at California State Sacramento.

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