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L-R: Janet LaBreck, Janie Jeffers, Diane Smith Howard, and Robert Stephens smiling in front of a wall and an American flag

Criminal justice and disability experts tackle school-to-prison pipeline of students with disabilities

Washington, D.C., August 31 — RespectAbility’s 2019 Capitol Hill Summit featured a panel discussion and Q&A on how to end the school-to-prison pipeline for students with disabilities.

Moderated by Janie Jeffers, the former senior policy advisor for The President’s Crime Prevention Council, the panelists included disability and criminal justice experts Janet LaBreck, Robert Stephens and Diane Smith Howard.

Throughout the conversation, the speakers stressed the importance of identifying and providing services for students with disabilities early, before they are swept into the criminal justice system.

“There are some very powerful statutes to protect people with disabilities in schools and protect their access to community-based services,” said Smith Howard, managing attorney for the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN). “And the failure to enforce those types of statutes is the primary feeder into the school to prison pipeline.”

LaBreck, former commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) at the Department of Education, agreed and emphasized the crucial role of supports and services for individuals with disabilities within the criminal justice system as well.

Meanwhile, Roberts Stephens of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) pointed to poverty as a contributing factor to the pipeline.

“The No. 1 indicator for how well a student will do is not how good of a teacher is in the classroom, unfortunately. It’s how much a parent makes – it’s income,” Stephens said. “As a former teacher, I kept a pantry in the back of my class because I realized I can’t teach a kid who’s hungry.”

The daylong event in the Rayburn House Office Building highlighted the most important issues facing the disability community today. Policymakers, entertainment professionals and self-advocates provided their insights on topics ranging from disability employment and policy to the depictions of disability in the media. Approximately 150 people attended throughout the day.

Meet the Author

Adam Fishbein

Adam Fishbein’s interest in disability advocacy stems from his own mental health and learning challenges. Throughout his childhood, he was involved in the PA Tourette Syndrome Alliance (PA-TSA) and the Tourette Association of America.

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