This is a final analysis of my semester’s research on the school to prison pipeline.
The school to prison pipeline is the institutionalized pathway that students of color take from the classroom to the prison cell. Students from African American and Latino ethnicities, as well as disabled students, are fed into this pipeline every single day. It is not an easy issue to solve as there are many factors that play into the system: teachers, school administrators, on-campus police officers, and local and federal lawmakers. I believe that the problem can only be solved with each independent influence working together with the others, instead of trying to fix it separately. However, for the purpose of this article, we will be discussing the problems that happen inside of school walls and the changes that can be made by school administrators, principals, teachers, and other school representatives. It is equally important for parents and students to understand the school system that they will spend over 12 years in.
Before discussing changes that can be made, it is important to understand the origins of the problem at hand and what factors are playing into the incarceration of minority youth groups. The United States has a disproportional amount of people that are held in its prisons. According to The Sentencing Project, the US is only home to about 5% of the world’s total population, but it holds 25% of the world’s prison population. Of that prison population, a disproportionate amount of those incarcerated of people of color. Approximately 1 in 3 black men will be incarcerated in their lifetime compared to the 1 in 17 white men that will see the walls of prison (Public Welfare Foundation). Seeing people of color behind bars has become normative in the United States and the issue has started to permeate the classrooms, a supposedly safe space for learning where ‘no child is left behind’.
In the last decades, schools have turned to law enforcement to deal with behavior problems in schools that are usually located in cities with students from low-income backgrounds. Instead of having a chance to speak with a guidance counselor or trusted adult at school about a problem, schools have implemented “no tolerance” policies that put students in the hands of police officers. Approximately 70% of students involved in in-school arrests are black or latino (Sentencing Stories).
When students aren’t being placed in handcuffs during the school day, another factor is playing at hand. Students of color are being sent to detention, being suspended, and being expelled. Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers for the same behavioral offenses (Sentencing Stories). Don’t be fooled that this pathway starts in high school, according to data from ThinkProgress.org, the school to prison pipeline is evidenced to start as early as preschool.
The infographic above illustrates more of the shocking statistics that youth of color are facing every day they step outside of their homes.
Many people debate over whether a student’s home life factors into the pipeline. While it may be easy to blame a student that has a less than favorable family situation on their future, it does not justify the overwhelming influence that schools have on the trajectory of a student’s life. The statistics reveal that there is for certain a problem with the way that educators and lawmakers are approaching treating minority and disabled students in the classroom.
While the statistics are helpful to understanding what is happening, no one knows for certain why it is happening. There are many predictions as to why the system would benefit from sending students from a learning environment to prison. According to the Mint Press News article, “Who’s Getting Caught In The School to Prison Pipeline? And Why?” one origin could be the temptations of the for-profit prison system. The article explained the “kids for cash” case where court judges in Pennsylvania received kickbacks for providing students to the counties for-profit juvenile detention facilities.
Another explanation is that the students that are being arrested in school are those that are low-performing: they score lower on standardized testing, require extra attention if they have a learning disability, or simply just don’t contribute to the betterment of the classroom experience. Removing those students gives the school a better chance to raise their average standardized test scores, which is used to determine how much federal funding a school district gets. Both scenarios both turn back to money for either the prison or the school.
An additional factor that also deals with monetary issues is that inner city school districts have less funding that would be able to go to alternative disciplinary methods and intervention programs. Schools may also not have the financial ability to train or hire teachers who work with special needs students. Once again, it is important to realize that these factors do not occur in isolated instances, each situation contributes equally to the school to prison pipeline.
The facts and figures are out there, however, schools are reluctant to implement changes. Each school–public or private, large or small, inner city or suburb–has a duty to protect their students of color and disabled students from the trap of the school to prison pipeline. There are many schools, educators, and nonprofits in the country that are dedicated to making the change one step at a time. The precedent they are setting should be adopted by school districts who are struggling with this issue.
In Fusion’s “5 ways to end the school to prison pipeline.” they interviewed Dr. Brenda Lewis, an assistant superintendent in Bakersfield, California. Her dedication to alternative disciplinary practices, like interventions and open discussions with students involved in incidents, led to a record-breaking decrease in the number of suspensions. The school district reduced the total number of expulsions from 1,096 students in 2010-2011 to 66 total expulsions in 2014-2015 (Fusion).
Other potential remedies to the pipeline are using police as a last resort, not a first response, improving the student to staff ratio, putting less emphasis on standardized testing, and focusing more on college and career prep (Fusion).
The photo above describes a student’s experience going to two different schools after having a bad day. The school on the left has implemented a zero-tolerance policy and the student eventually ends up being held in juvenile detention by the end of his day. The second school on the right has implemented restorative practices, similar to those that Dr. Lewis initiated in her school district. The teachers are welcoming and aid the student with finding a guidance counselor to solve the problem.
Of course, it can take a while for entire school districts or even individual schools to implement these types of policies. Schools have invested in police officers and security systems like metal detectors. Many long term staff members may be adapted to the day to day disciplinary actions and students may not be open to working out their problems with a guidance counselor at first if that is something they have never been exposed to. Regardless, individual teachers and administrators should do their part to encourage the change. If a school district isn’t willing to be the hope for an individual student, then it is up to teachers to be their support system while waiting on that change. Parents should be involved at school board meetings and voice their opinions. Feasible steps can be planned out to change the situation and everything counts no matter how small or large the change is.
A video from Vox explains the epidemic and why it matters.