Breaking the Summary Offense Link in the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Emerging Leader Fellow: Maheen Kaleem, 2013-2014

As part of the “zero tolerance” movement, schools throughout Pennsylvania have adopted the practice of referring students involved in even minor behavioral matters or confrontations to the police. Many of these referrals result in citations for “summary” offenses, the lowest level criminal offense in Pennsylvania. Because a summary offense does not result in jail time, it does not trigger the Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Thus, students who have been cited for disorderly conduct or dress code violations find themselves in magisterial district courts (or in Philadelphia Municipal Court) among adult defendants, usually without counsel. These proceedings often result in convictions and the host of barriers to later employment, education, and job training programs that result from a criminal record.

The choice, and it is a choice that principals make, to issue a summary offense for minor disciplinary matters is one that can have serious consequences for young people, both immediately and over the long term. These youth are more likely to fall behind in school, drop out and experience additional involvement with the criminal justice system.

ACLUF-PA’s goal is to eliminate the routine issuance of summary citations for school misconduct. Maheen will further that goal by demonstrating the extent, effects and costs of the problem. By creating a model Juvenile Summary Offense Representation effort, Maheen will collect the stories and the analysis to help ACLUF-PA develop the policy and advocacy briefs necessary for reform. Maheen will work with ACLUF-PA staff to select three school districts to: 1) provide direct representation to students with summary citations in order to inform students and parents of their rights; 2) develop and document best practices for these cases; 3) use advocates in the courtroom to educate judges and police about the consequences of early youth involvement with the criminal justice system, and to convince them that routine school misconduct is not a crime; 4) document the prevalence of summary citations for minor misconduct, racial disparities in the use of summary citations, and highlight the consequences for students and families; and, 5) organize parents, students and community groups to advocate at the school and school board level to change referral policies.