- Associated Press - Thursday, October 29, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe raised questions Thursday about a report saying tough school discipline often puts kids on a path that leads to prison later.

Holcombe told lawmakers that studies making the link often ask prisoners if they were ever suspended from school and find many say yes. She said an alternate study would look at the broader group of students who had at least one school suspension and ask how many later go to prison.

“These studies have not been done, but experience suggests that the vast majority of students who are suspended at one point in their lives do not end up incarcerated,” Holcombe said in prepared testimony.

Holcombe was responding to a report issued in January by Vermont Legal Aid and to testimony by Jay Diaz, a former Legal Aid lawyer who since writing the report has moved to the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Diaz also testified Thursday, telling the Joint Legislative Justice Oversight Committee about a “school-to-prison pipeline,” in which school discipline, especially suspensions, sets up a negative cycle of acting out and discipline that makes young people likely to end up in trouble with the law after they graduate.

Holcombe cited Corrections Department figures showing that the pipeline from school to corrections may not flow that easily. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of people 21 or younger - typically the years immediately following high school - who were under Corrections Department supervision dropped by 85 percent.

“The number of inmates remained roughly constant but … proportionally fewer inmates are under age 26,” Holcombe said in her testimony. “Increasingly, first-time entrants to Corrections are between ages 25-35.”

During a break in testimony, Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington and the oversight committee chairman, said it’s unclear if Vermont needs legislation to deal with the issues raised by Diaz. But he said it’s good to shine a light on the issues surrounding school discipline nonetheless.

During his testimony, Diaz also showed the committee a widely circulated video of a South Carolina sheriff’s deputy flipping a 16-year-old student’s classroom desk over with her still in it, slamming her to the floor and then dragging her and the desk down a classroom aisle after she refused to stand and leave the classroom. Deputy Ben Fields has been terminated from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in South Carolina following Monday’s incident.

Diaz said he has worked with the families of two students in Vermont since his arrival in the state in 2012 in cases in which police used similar excessive force. He wouldn’t elaborate in later interviews, saying he did not want to violate the students’ confidentiality.

“Unfortunately what I have to tell you is that it has happened here. It isn’t on video, but I represented two students in two separate instances who were nonviolent, who didn’t want to leave school, needed time to cool off, who were approached by the police after being called by school administrators, and who were body-slammed or thrown out the door or pushed up against walls,” Diaz said.

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