Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Michelle Deardorff, department head of political science and public service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, speaks at First Centenary United Methodist Church on Feb 6. The researcher highlighted the school-to-prison pipeline and possible solutions.

Tennessee fails to support its students with counselors and mental health professionals, leading to the school-to-prison pipeline, said Michelle Deardorff, department head of political science and public service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Deardorff led a presentation Thursday afternoon at First-Centenary United Methodist Church on the situation, highlighting what is happening in Hamilton County Schools and possible models for change.

In public schools across the nation, black students face harsher discipline and are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. The high number of suspensions and expulsions pushes kids out of the education system and they become more likely to be involved in crime, Deardorff said.

Last year, the Tennessee Department of Education highlighted Hamilton County Schools for disproportionately disciplining students with disabilities, especially black students. A month later, the school district began updating its code of conduct, with a focus on its discipline policies.

"Discipline is a case-by-case basis that's often made by the principal or the school administrator," Deardorff said. "It's done one-on-one on each individual case, but unless there's a concerted effort to look at data, to look at trends, to look at patterns, school officials and administrators would be unaware of this [problem], of what the overall outcome is."

Deardorff said there is little research on the outcomes of hiring school resource officers, even though the move has local and nationwide support. Whether a school resource officer focuses more on discipline or community building at a school depends on individual districts, Deardorff said.

Only one in three schools in Hamilton County has a school resource officer, and the school board debated last month about hiring private security officers or off-duty policers to fill gaps.

Nationwide, students of color in America are more likely to be at schools with understaffed counseling departments, Deardorff said.

Last year, Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson requested hiring an additional 14 school counselors, 10 social workers and five behavior specialists as part of his proposed $443 million budget. The approved budget eventually funded 10 school counselors and five social workers.

Investing more in student mental health was one of four models for change outlined by the professor.

Other models included partnering schools with local courts to address the roots of problems and focusing on alternatives to arrest. Other schools have limited exclusionary behavior such as suspensions or are building in restorative justice programs where students as a group decide what an offending student has to do to right a wrong.

The United Methodist Women at First-Centenary hosted the Thursday presentation. Addressing the school-to-prison pipeline is one of four social action topics in the nationwide United Methodist Women group.

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