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Draining the School to Prison Pipeline

As discontent with the treatment of African-Americans at the hands of the law enforcement has generated significant media attention over the past year, an overwhelming body of evidence continues to indicate that the effects of racial profiling and criminalization extend beyond the jailhouse. It has reached the schoolhouse too, creating a funnel that draws black youth out of the classroom and into the courtroom.

Welcome to the school-to-prison pipeline.

“The school-to-prison pipeline is a combination of policies and practices that are structured in a racially biased way,” explained attorney Thomas Mariadason at a recent event at New America. “It de-prioritizes education for students of color, and [it is] criminalizing the behavior of students of color in a way that leads them down the path towards criminal justice involvement and incarceration.”

Mariadason, who currently works in the Advancement Project’s Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Program, was joined by Howard University professor Dr. Bahiyyah Muhammad, DC Trust Executive Director Ed Davies, and New York City educator and activist Jose Vilson for a discussion on the disproportionate amount of punishment levied against black students in classrooms across the country. 

The conversation quickly settled into a common refrain—the classroom criminalization faced by minority youth is nothing new.

“Throughout history this has been the way things have been and it’s only now that we’re turning an eye to it and commoditizing it as something sexy, something that we can talk about in public discourse,” Davies remarked.

A hard look at the numbers makes it clear that schools are struggling with a racial discipline gap. Nationally, black students are three times more likely to face suspension than their white peers when they have committed equitable infractions. The disparity is even larger when things are broken down by gender--black girls are suspended at twice the rate of white boys and six times the rate of white girls.

But the problems don’t end at suspension. Last January, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice released a joint “Dear Colleague” letter which noted that schools’ “increasing use of disciplinary sanctions creates the potential for significant, negative educational and long-term outcomes [for students].” And just two weeks ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint alleging that excessive punishments in Jefferson Parrish, Louisiana were having severely negative effects on black students. In one particularly striking story, a 15 year old boy was held in juvenile detention for six days after being arrested at school.

His crime? Throwing Skittles on a school bus.

With so many tales of misconduct landing students behind bars instead of in the principal’s office, it is safe to say that the school-to-prison pipeline isn’t new. If, as Davies observed, black students have historically faced harsher punishments than their peers when committing similar offenses why is it generating so much attention now?

One possible answer lies in the heightened awareness of racial profiling that has emerged with the rise of the “Black Lives Matter,” movement. Anger surrounding the status and treatment of black Americans has flowed out of minority communities and into national media stories, forcing politicians and community members alike to consider how “zero-tolerance” education policies have had a disparate impact on minority students.

“The phenomenon hasn’t changed for urban settings where there are black youth,” Vilson noted.

Zero-tolerance policies have been around for quite some time, but moderator and New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones explained that the disciplinarian way of educating didn’t really gain traction until the Columbine High School shooting (and more recently the Newtown tragedy) completely upended the image of schools as safe spaces. As school administrators and police departments tried to move forward, they began to crack down on any sign of disorder, from classroom disruption to dress code violations.

And as a result schools became a lot more like prisons. “The sad, infuriating irony is that to this day, Columbine doesn’t have metal detectors but we’ve seen the rapid militarization of schools in urban areas where there is a concentration on students of color,” Mariadason added.

The irony wasn’t lost on Hannah-Jones, who captured the upshot of this line of discussion: black youth are being disproportionately affected by “policies and funding meant to deal with crimes committed by white males.” 

But for the panelists, the issue isn’t simply the result of misattributing bad behavior to African-American children. Davies identified the larger problem as an inability to deal effectively with the daily obstacles impeding the success of minority students.

“The issue [with the school-to-prison pipeline] is that we’re trying to address education issues through juvenile justice, and the problems that exist in how we educate our kids, how we view our kids,” Davies claimed. “We’re taking a sledgehammer to a problem that requires a feather.”

And it has become increasingly obvious that the hammer isn’t working. The students most heavily affected by the school-to-prison pipeline often face a wide range of difficulties at home that an arrest or out-of school suspension is likely to exacerbate, not solve. In many cases, these students have relatives that are already within the criminal justice system, creating a cycle where minority students often graduate from school offenses to the much larger “prison-to-prison pipeline”—a phenomenon marked by frequent entry, exit, and reentry into the criminal justice system.

“You have some people who really think that prison is the place for young, black, “violent”, “animalistic” individuals to go,” Muhammad argued. In her research on the children of incarcerated parents, Muhammad has found that it is possible for children to break the prison cycle, but society has to “change the narrative” in order for them to get there.

But how should we change the narrative? Ultimately, the panelists agreed that building and maintaining community bonds through storytelling, advancing the idea that “prison is not justice”, supporting student activism, and implementing restorative justice techniques would be the best way to “flatten the power dynamic and empower teachers and students to interact”.

“What we’re dealing with is not the policies that are fueling the school-to-prison pipeline, it’s the people who are reinforcing these policies”, Davies argued. “We have to start with how to change those minds, how to change those hearts.”


P.R. Lockhart