Suspended, to dropping out, to jail – looking at Buffalo’s ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline

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Every day, thousands of students file into Buffalo Public Schools to attend class. When they leave, some of them will be leaving for good. 

Three years ago, Titus Wilson was one of those students. 

“I signed myself out,” said Wilson. “I did it myself and never went back.”

Wilson says he didn’t just decide to drop out overnight. He admits he acted out in class a bit which lead to him being suspended.

“I got suspended for three days for checking my phone,” said Wilson. 

The New York State Department of Education reports suspension rates within Buffalo Schools are going down; still, a vast majority are for minor violations and, according to the school district, the majority of the students suspended are minorities. Missing classes plays a major role in drop out rates. Research shows two or more absences a month significantly decreases the likelihood of children graduating. 

The Buffalo Public Schools have a 63% graduation rate. Looking at the currently enrollment information, that means more than 3200 high schoolers in the district will not graduate. 

Wilson says when he started missing classes during suspensions – five days here, three there, he began losing all motivation to go to school.

“Eighth grade. That’s when the bad stuff started. Tenth grade year, it was over.”

Sixteen, without a degree, he turned to the streets. Within months of leaving school, Wilson found himself behind bars for misdemeanor drug and disturbance charges. 

Studies show students who are suspended for minor violations are almost three times more likely to wind up in the criminal justice system within a year.

“There’s an increase in the likelihood resulting in them ending up in somebody’s courtroom,” said Judge James McLeod.

Now, it’s Judge Craig Hannah’s courtroom. For almost two decades, they stood in front of Judge McLeod. He set up the Adolescent Diversion Program to try to stop young offenders from having persistent legal issues. 

“I am starting to see a lot of the same kids coming back into the system,” said Judge McLeod. 

That’s not uncommon either. Once a young person winds up in the system, statistics aren’t in their favor. New York State records show, if someone gets wrapped up in the justice system, spending time in a detention facility before they’re 16, there’s more than an 80% chance they’ll wind up arrested again. And for young boys, more than a 70% chance they’ll be behind bars again before they reach their 28th birthday.

“Obviously not enough was being done to try to stop the cycle.” 

Through ADP, the judge began forging a relationship with the Buffalo Public School system. That’s when Mike Wheeler, the BPS liaison to court, moved from schools to courthouse. Inside of his office, hundreds of files are stacked high. They’re all containing academic history. Wheeler says he’s created thousands of these reports, estimating making around 675 each year, for the last 18 years.

The identifying student information inside these reports which we were shown is protected under a federal law called The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, better known as FERPA. 

“I like to think that’s all public information,” said Wheeler when asked if providing that information to the judge is a violation of the federal law. “If I was violating any law, I think the school board attorney would let me know.”

There are some exception to the law. The records can be accessed without consent if a federal agency is looking for it for an audit or to conduct a study. It can be shared if there’s a court order or subpoena. The school board attorney told us subpoenas are filed. However, the City Court Chief Judge says that’s not the case. 

Additionally, parents can sign off, allowing the courts to access this information. We attended several hearings where the young offender is a part of ADP and asked parents afterwards if they ever provided consent for the information to be accessed and not a single person says they were asked. 

The ADP program has success and Judge McLeod says he’s proud of the program he started and stands by using school records to learn more about the young offenders, hoping that information will help create pathways out of the pipeline. 

“I can’t save them all, I know that, but if I can save one, that’s better than losing them all.” 

As for Titus Wilson, he is now 19, received his GED, and hasn’t had any other issues with the law. In retrospect, he wishes he stayed in school, felt more supported there, and never wound up in the system. Realizing he can’t go back, he says he’s grateful for every day he has now.

“It’s not over for me or anybody. Anybody can fix their ways.” 

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