David Slade's article on juvenile detention ("Juvenile Justice System Fails to Educate," April 16) exposes the shortcomings of our juvenile detention centers in our state. Instead of faulting the Department of Juvenile Justice education facilities, however, we should ask how we can do a better job of keeping kids out of the juvenile justice system in the first place - which means keeping them in school and addressing discipline issues in ways that have proven successful in other states

Education is a top priority for South Carolina voters. To enable children to succeed and to solve the workforce shortfall in our state, we should focus on ending discipline practices that unnecessarily send them on the path to prison. School should be a place where kids learn from their mistakes and are taught positive behaviors, not pushed out. Dumping students in detention centers costs our state, even as it shortchanges them personally.

New federal guidance issued in January by the Department of Justice and Department of Education provides a blueprint for schools to institute positive discipline practices and end harsh ones that bring kids in contact with the criminal justice system. These methods have proven successful in communities like Denver and Baltimore and can work in South Carolina.

A "zero tolerance" approach to discipline has led to high numbers of students being unnecessarily suspended, expelled and even arrested for behaviors that are not serious threats to safety. The overuse of law enforcement in our schools, as well as too many arrests for vague offenses like "disturbing schools," should be addressed. Some communities elsewhere have successfully adopted memorandums of understanding between school districts and law enforcement agencies to clarify that police should be responsible for handling serious crimes - not youthful misbehavior. We should stop criminalizing kids for being kids.

As the article points out, in South Carolina "most counties take juvenile detainees to the state Department of Juvenile Justice facility in Columbia. The department operates the largest pre-adjudication detention center, and facilities for evaluation and incarceration." We need to stop sending kids for "commitment evaluations" and create community-based alternatives. We can reduce youth detention rates in counties where these are high by establishing risk assessment instruments (to predict the likelihood of serious, repeated violence) and more options for alternative discipline.

This problem has a bottom line, and it is the cost to our communities of locking up children rather than educating them.

We can only secure a school-to-work path for our children by ending the "school to prison pipeline."

VICTORIA MIDDLETON

Executive Director

ACLU of South Carolina

King Street

Charleston