#FreeGrace and The School To Prison Pipeline

Image of a brown fist raised. Text reads #FreeGrace.

On July 22, 2020, Her Power! wrote an open letter supporting Grace, who was a 15 year-old girl with disabilities that was incarcerated after a judge ruled that she had violated her probation by not completing her online coursework when her school moved to remote learning. As part of the #FreeGrace Campaign, Grace received letters from across the globe.

After 78 days of being incarcerated, Grace was released in late July 2020.

While we are proud to report that Grace is now speaking out about her experience, this is only one example of the reality of the school to prison pipeline in the US that funnels kids out of the public school system and into the juvenile and criminal justice system. ACLU reported that, “many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished, and pushed out.” Non-white disabled kids are especially vulnerable to the school to prison pipeline because of the role implicit racial bias plays in criminalizing young people in general.

DREDF (Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund) argues that the solution lies in both the reform of policy and the reduction of disability stigma, “there is widespread non-compliance with IDEA and other disability rights laws guaranteeing a Free and Appropriate Public Education. A thorough review of a suspended or failing student’s file will likely show that he or she is in need of additional academic and behavioral supports, including but not limited to a referral for IDEA or Response to Intervention (RTI) services. This type of early invention is the key to changing their STPP (school to prison pipeline) trajectory.”

While there is no doubt that many of these policies need to be reformed, the focus on reducing disability stigma seems paramount in solving this problem. We know that the stigma of disability can be seen in all facets of society. In religious sectors, disability is often associated with being ‘evil’ or ‘from sin’; within our healthcare system, a disabled person is seen as having a lower quality of life and often deemed ‘unworthy’ of receiving basic health care; and in pop culture we often see disability in TV shows and movies represented as the ‘villain’ or as ‘helpless.’ It only seems natural that society’s views on disability would seep through to our school system and how disabled students are treated within our education system. Currently, we know this stigma is still very real when parents/guardians (and especially those of nonwhite children) are hesitant to place the word “disabled” on their child’s education file because students with disabilities report feelings of being ‘othered’ or ‘isolated.’ Having a disability should never mean that the student is segregated. As Vernikoff says in her Book “Disabling The School to Prison Pipeline,” both the Special Education System and The Juvenile Justice System aim to ‘fix supposed deficits within particular kids through isolation and treatment.” It will not be until we face this stigma head on that we will have fewer Grace’s in the world.

While DREDF and ACLU are looking at the problem from a more systemic policy perspective, Grace couldn’t agree more. In a recent interview she said, “There are so many other Graces out there who need a voice, and they need to be heard. They are screaming, they’re yelling, they’re asking for help.”

From all of us who have lived in a world that did not accommodate our disability, in a society that is not accepting of the skin we live in and for all of the times we have been misunderstood, LETA Solutions hopes that we can be part of solving this both systemically and through the girls that come through our programs.

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