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Distinguished Lecturer Tanya Coke, Expert in Public School Discipline Policies, Receives $550,000 Grant from Atlantic Philanthropies

In September 2013, John Jay added to its roster of noted faculty scholars with the appointment of Distinguished Lecturer Tanya Coke in the Department of Public Management. Coke is a civil rights lawyer whose work has helped to spur a national movement to reduce school suspensions and transform public school disciplinary policies. She recently secured a two-year, $550,000 grant from the Atlantic Philanthropies to advance a School-Justice project that provides for the hiring of a full-time Atlantic Philanthropies Fellow under Coke’s supervision.

The fellowship will help advance the Obama Administration’s Supportive School Discipline Initiative (SSDI), a joint project initiated by the Departments of Justice and Education in 2011 that aims to reduce excessive use of suspension and expulsion in public schools. The Fellow, Jaime Koppel, a former project manager with the Children’s Defense Fund, will be embedded in the Justice Department in Washington, DC, for the next two years to facilitate the exchange of research and other resources from around the country to support the SSDI.

In January, the Departments of Justice and Education issued an advisory to every school district in the country, encouraging them to use positive disciplinary alternatives to removing children from school. Coke says that data reported from across the country shows that students of color and students with disabilities, especially black males, are suspended from school at three times the rate of their white peers.

“A single out-of-school suspension in the ninth grade doubles the chance of course failure and early high school drop out,” said Coke, and increases significantly the likelihood of involvement in the criminal justice system, a phenomenon known as “the school-to-prison pipeline.” A former public defender, Coke says she became interested in this issue after seeing growing numbers of young people charged in juvenile courts for minor misbehavior in school that a generation ago landed them in a school principal’s office. “One underexplored aspect of the school-to-prison pipeline I plan to explore is its reverse effects: how the criminal justice system affects student learning and engagement in the classroom.”

The Atlantic grant will fund Coke’s study of youth experiences of criminalization at school, on the street (e.g., the controversial use of stop and frisk), and at home (e.g., experiences of parental incarceration) and their collective impact on student achievement in school. Her work will also aim to transform punitive school discipline policies to a more positive, restorative approach.

“Some of my research will look at engagement of students who are managing two very different messages in their lives: a call to stay in school and graduate to college or career, and a presumption of criminality that tells them that prison is their future. I am interested in how presumptive criminal treatment affects students’ optimism, grit and engagement,” said Coke. She will also be working with Michelle Alexander, author of the 2010 best-selling book The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in an Age of Color Blindness, on an adaption of that book into a curriculum for high school students. “It will look at structural racism in various forms throughout history,” said Coke, “and engage students in critical thinking about the role of the criminal justice system in their lives and the broader society.”

During the spring 2014 semester, Coke will teach an experimental graduate course on nonprofit organizations and philanthropy in John Jay’s Department of Public Management.

Coke joins John Jay after a 20-year career in philanthropy and social justice advocacy. From 2010 to 2013, she worked as a Senior Consultant to the Atlantic Philanthropies, where she conceived the foundation’s grantmaking initiative on school discipline and school climate. Previously, she was Program Manager of the U.S. Human Rights Fund and Director of Criminal Justice Programs for the Open Society Foundations, where she designed a strategy for the foundation’s signature initiative to reduce incarceration in the United States. While at OSF, Tanya also founded the Gideon Project, a grantmaking program focusing on death penalty abolition and improving indigent defense.

She has also served as program development consultant and evaluator for leading social change organizations, including the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Ford Foundation and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Coke is a graduate of Yale University and New York University School of Law, where she was a Root-Tilden Public Interest Scholar and editor-in-chief of the Law Review.