The phrase “school-to-prison-pipeline” is, for many, an impersonal educational buzzword like “rigor” and “standardized tests.” For others like me, it is an educational and societal mishap happening right before their eyes. Even more damaging, it is a wrathful system that’s swallowed children up and they now live with its dire consequences. These children are disproportionately Black and Brown; their misconduct, which is often rooted in deep social-emotional trauma, has been misconstrued and misdirected.
As a society, we must see that there is something inherently wrong about sending our children to school and then carting then off to prison in one heaping swoop. Black and Brown children are not allowed to be children and make mistakes that children make without being seen as threats and disturbances worthy of removal and imprisonment. As a matter of fact, this problem is so pervasive that, according to the ACLU,
Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out.
“Zero-tolerance” policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while cops in school lead to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.
Once a child becomes entangled in the criminal justice system, it becomes very difficult for them to come out. Even when they do, it is with the addition of further scars.
Our purpose as educators is to build up, not destroy.
As educators on the front lines of the school-to-prison pipeline, it is imperative that we take a stock of our own implicit biases that may be contributing to the demise of our students. On a broader scale, policies that seek to implement metal detectors, armed guards, and armed teachers in our schools are a recipe for disaster that will lead to the very carnage that it proposes to mitigate. Guns and schools don’t mix — no matter who the holder of the weapon is.
It’s a simple as that.
The school-to-prison pipeline is very personal to me and for any teacher who has visited one of our students in prison or jail or seen the documentation on a child slowly yet methodically built to record every infraction that they engage in – real or imagined — for the express purpose of getting them in trouble. It is very painful to watch. I recently learned of a colleague’s son who is six years old and had the police called on him in school because he was accused of stealing another student’s bag of potato chips. He was searched and questioned and eventually the student found his chips, but not after my colleague’s son was traumatized.
There are countless incidents like this that happen daily that we never hear about, but that are taking place.
Students should definitely receive consequences when their actions are academically, physically, psychologically, or emotionally harmful to themselves or others when in the school setting. However, the way in which we perceive our students — particularly our already marginalized, disenfranchised, and vulnerable students – must be reconfigured to address their humanity and personhood. This lack of seeing Black and Brown students as worthy of such considerations is at the core of the school to prison pipeline agenda.
The countless stories on the news tell the tawdry yet true tales of police officers being called to handle situations in schools that, in years past, would have more rightfully been addressed with a redirection of the child to the principal’s office or with a phone call home to parents requesting a conference. Too often, such steps are taken as building blocks necessary for the next steps of the infraction, not as a means to resolve the issue at hand.
To be honest, the times when students have gotten funky with me or when I’ve felt that I needed some reinforcement from the dean to handle a situation, by the end of the conversation with the student and their family members, I see why, socially and emotionally, the student’s behavior makes sense. We all are going through things in life in some way are troubling us. As adults, we have the skill sets and coping mechanisms in place, most times, to help us navigate the bumpy roads of life. Our students do not. They live in a world that is much different than any other in the history of human existence. They sometimes just don’t know how to deal with they myriad of obstacles before them. We, as the adults and trained professionals in their lives, need to be sensitive to their needs.
The money we spend on beefing up school safety and the criminal justice system — which is deeply broken, by the way, and was never meant to help Black and Brown people — needs to be put into hiring more support staff. Schools need more social workers. Schools need more guidance counselors. Schools need more psychologists. Schools need more teacher and administrators from the neighborhoods from which the students they teach and govern live.
Then and only then will we dismantle the school to prison pipeline.