The Reality of the School to Prison Pipeline

School to Prison Pipeline

The Meeting of the Minds Pt. 2 was a thought provoking discussion about the public education system and the schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline. The panelists from various organizations shed light on the issue as Emilee Christopher of the Catalyst Network Foundation asked questions that would help the attendees gain a better understanding of what is really happening within our public schools.

The increased role of law enforcement in schools and school policies have resulted in more school-based arrests, suspensions and expulsions as a way to deal with student misconduct. These forms of discipline cause for students’ education to be interrupted as they are pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. What makes this issue even more alarming is that the students affected by this are disproportionately students of color. This is an education problem, a criminal justice problem and a racial justice problem. Below are some key takeaways from the panelists which included:

  • Beverly Johnson (Independent Consultant, representing National Society of Black Engineers)
  • Andrew Hamilton (National Black MBA Association)
  • Christina Bonne-Annee (Metropolitan Black Bar Association)
  • Elba Rose Galvan (Puerto Rican Bar Association)
  • Bianka Perez Vega (Dominican Bar Association)
  • Jason Sinocruz (Advancement Project)

Note: This recap does not reflect my views. My response to the event will be included at the end.

Across the nation in many school districts, school discipline has become a major factor in determining adverse outcomes for students of color, what do you think is the driving cause?
One of the causes identified by Christina Bonne-Annee of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association was the concept of teaching to the test, where the driving factor behind the education of children are test scores and outcomes and not the development of the student. She also added that students are dealing with complex issues that teachers aren’t prepared to handle. “It all comes down to money. The metrics are all about test performance not social development or self esteem.”
Jason Sinocruz of the Advancement Project mentioned that there is a discipline problem and a punitive system where schools and governments are investing in metal detectors instead of things that will develop students like sports, the arts, counselors, support staff. The priorities are not in the right order.
Years ago a child would receive detention or get a call home for disorderly behavior in class.  Now students are being expelled or sent home for infractions as minor as wearing the wrong color socks or talking out loud to the teacher.  What does this say about the condition and management of our schools?

Beverly Johnson, education consultant, said that “Education is a business,” and it is not about nurturing and developing students. It is about employing the right kind of teacher, to teach a certain kind of student and get a certain outcome to receive more funding. The panelists all agreed that schools were being run more like businesses designed to produce a certain kind of student. These zero-tolerance and harsh discipline policies are used like a process of distillation to weed out the “bad students” resulting in frustrations that lead to drop-outs, poor attendance, transfer to alternative schools or even juvenile detention centers.
How do you feel the school to prison pipeline affects the career outcomes of students?

Andrew Hamilton of the MBA Association mentioned that, “In order to succeed in Corporate America, we need a pipeline to produce these sponsors and mentors and take people to the next level.” As more students of color do not achieve their greatest potential, the executive ranks are less populated by people who “look like us.” Mentors and sponsors are crucial to career success and without those people to rely on, it becomes a lot more difficult to reach positions of leadership. Jason supported the statement by adding that disciplinary infractions are affecting drop out rates and college admission rates decreasing the pool of diverse applicants. He made a great point reminding us that when a student has a serious disciplinary infraction, they must often highlight that on their college and job applications, putting them at a disadvantage and making it harder for them to be candidates for positions of leadership or advancement opportunities.

Are charter schools an asset?

After a few more questions, the audience was able to weigh in and a charter school teacher inquired about the recent publicity and praise that charter schools across the nation have been getting for the work that they do and the outcomes they produce. Jason opened the conversation by saying that charter schools have no accountability. He used an example of a charter school in Chicago that fines students 5 dollars for minor infractions i.e. sock colors being wrong or missing a piece of the uniform. As a result, over $300,000 have been collected from fines. Therefore, students that can’t afford these fines can eventually drop out etc. Charter schools have a lot more freedom to do as they please, which does not necessarily make it a positive thing.

Christina suggested reframing this issue and not allowing charter schools to be the main focus of conversations surrounding education, since charter schools are educating about 10 percent of New York city children. Overall, public schools seemed to be favored in the debate.

The final question asked the panelists, what would be the one thing you would change about the education system?
Andrew Hamilton: “The perception of “us” [needs to change]. We are living breathing beings and we deserve the same respect as everyone else.”

Jason Sinocruz: “Suspensions, expulsions and arrests don’t work.” We need to change the culture of our schools and focus more on school counselors, social workers and the arts to create environments of nurturing.

Bianka Perez Vega of the Dominican Bar Association: Hold teachers and the system accountable.

Christina Bonne-Annee: In every curriculum, K-12, students learn about history, cultural heritage and power.  We need to know about the power that we come from. Our children are confused because we have been stripped from that and lost in their identity.

Elba Rose Galvan: Perception is absolutely the root cause. Change enforcement across the board.  If everyone experienced what minorities experience that would change the zero-tolerance view.

Beverly Johnson: Unity. The schools, police and churches provided resources and information. We are fragmented. All we have to do is work together. We should be able to walk into these places and ask questions and feel supported.

My views on the event

Overall, the event sparked thoughts about the role that harsh school discipline policies are playing in the lives of our youth and what is happening in the education system. The panel spent a lot of time pointing fingers at everyone but the people who really hold the most power: the parents and the community. Andrew made a great point during the conversation, stating that we need to focus on the route to school, what happens at home and before the student even walks through the school doors. They carry behaviors, pressures, stress and issues that often aren’t accounted for, and teachers, no matter how well trained they think they are, are not equipped to be educators, social workers, therapists and conflict resolution specialists all at the same time.

Beverly Johnson said my FAVORITE thing during the entire panel discussion and that was “You can’t send them, you have to go with them,” referring to enrichment activities and seeking opportunities for students to advance. “Make sure your student is engaged at an early age not only in the schoolhouse but in our homes and communities.” Thank you Beverly! I must say that I am a bit biased after working for a teachers’ union and attending Catholic school most of my life. However, I do not believe that the success of the education system should rest solely in the hands of educators and the administration. I am not expert on the topic, but I do believe that parental involvement is an important factor. In school districts across the nation, teachers are being subjected to performance based evaluation systems, like the IMPACT system in D.C., leaving educators with no choice but to focus on the new core standards and teaching to the test. It is up to the parents and the community to help drain the school to prison pipeline through regular involvement in school affairs, community boards and their child’s education in general.

I won’t continue to ramble on, but we need to give teachers some credit for what they do and hold parents a bit more accountable for the success of their students. Check out this goosebump-inducing spoken word piece. Helps to paint the picture better than any blog post or panel can.


One thought on “The Reality of the School to Prison Pipeline

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