Clogging the Pipeline

By Wesley Lowery

Can the School-to-Prison Pipeline Problem Be Solved?

Education and discipline experts largely agree that the primary cause of the current schools-to-prison pipeline is a series of zero-tolerance policies implemented by principals, school boards and state legislatures in response to the 1999 Columbine school shooting.

And, among those working to combat the pipeline—in which one in five Black young men end up in prison—there is a similar consensus about who is charged with reversing the course: Everyone.

“All of the above. Teachers, school districts, parents, education advocates and state and federal governments,” said Daniel Losen, the director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, which has released extensive research and data analysis about the causes and scope of the prison pipeline. “We’re all to blame.”

The first step, most agree, must come from within the individual districts, school houses and classrooms.

Losen, who worked for 10 years as a teacher in Lexington, MA, recalls the discipline decisions he had to make each day in the classroom. He says he often tried to give students the benefit of the doubt when issuing discipline and, when possible, avoided involving the principal’s office in day-to-day disruptions.

But for generations, the mindset of many of those overseeing classrooms has been much stricter.

Many teachers have long employed a mindset similar to that of Joe Louis Clark, the iconic principal portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the 1989 film Lean on Me, in which some students are just bad apples who must be separated from the rest in order for learning to take place.

“It’s the old school ‘there are bad kids and we have to kick them out’ philosophy,” Losen said. “We have to get past that.”

That mindset, coupled with the increasing presence of police and school resource officers in hallways and the over reliance on suspensions has had disturbing results, Losen said.

Black and disabled students are disproportionately being labeled as those “bad apples,” often for offenses such as talking back to a teacher or schoolyard scuffles. Rather than correcting behavior, zero tolerance policies have seen those students booted from class via suspensions and funneled into the judicial system.

“If you can get kicked out for any kind of minor misbehavior, it’s sending the message that we don’t want everybody here,” he said.

The Civil Rights Project’s most recent analysis of the school suspensions issued at 6,000 school districts shows a disturbingly disproportionate impact of stringent discipline on Black students.

According to their numbers, 25% of Black middle school students have been suspended at least once. For Black male students, that number jumps to 32%.

In 124 school districts across the country, more than half of Black students have been suspended at least once.

But Losen stresses that there are school districts that are doing discipline the right way. Through mentorship programs and in-school suspension options, some districts have been able to keep students in classrooms and thus avoid the spike in dropout rates that education researchers link to heavy suspension rates.

“There are many school districts that aren’t suspending high numbers of students,” Losen said. “The fact is, there are literally thousands of districts across the nation that aren’t using suspensions this way. There are alternatives.”

Losen specifically cites Guilford County Schools in North Carolina, which have regularly been recognized as having some of the highest graduation rates for Black males of any district in the country.

The district recently committed more than $300,000 to two pilot programs aimed at upping those rates even further. The first program targets literacy in elementary schools—providing hands-on instruction to make sure Black students don’t fall behind their peers. The second focuses on suspensions, employing a team to analyze the district’s discipline data with the goal of reducing the suspension rate by 30% over the course of three years.

Other districts have attempted to tackle the pipeline through student-driven initiatives and mentorship programs. Shaker Heights High School, near Cleveland, OH, has long employed a “Minority Achievement Committee” (MAC) —a student-led mentorship program for Black men and women, in which younger students are mentored by older students.

The MAC program, which began in the district’s high school and has expanded to its two middle schools, facilitates group meetings led by student leaders—titled “MAC Scholars” —in which younger students can ask questions, receive studying and organizational best practices and have discussions of current events with their older mentors.

A primary ideology of the program is that the best way to influence students to self-correct disruptive behavior and academic underachievement is by having fellow students, who look like them, apply the pressure.

Mentors also hold grade meetings with each of the younger students enrolled in the program twice each quarter, holding their mentees accountable for slips in their marks and helping them set goals for the end of the term.

Current participants and alumni of the program credit the personal relationships fostered between older and younger students with cutting down on in-school behavioral issues while fostering higher academic achievement.

At the end of each year, the group gathers to celebrate the academic achievements of its members, which, at the end of the 2012-13 school year, will include students whose GPAs have seen monumental rises and a variety of college admissions—from state schools to Ivy League campuses, including Dartmouth, said Mary Lynne McGovern, who has served as one of the program’s advisors since its inception in 1990.

The key for solving the prison pipeline is a shift away from reactionary discipline and toward deliberate, preventative and interventionary programs, said George Sugai, director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Behavioral Education and Research.

“It’s pretty clear that the reactive punishment models we have in some schools and in the juvenile criminal justice system don’t keep the kids from coming back,” he said.

Sugai also works as co-director of the Center of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports—an organization that has worked with the U.S. Department of Education to find and promote alternative discipline methods.

The program has worked with more than 18,000 schools, but Sugai says the schools that see the most success at shifting from zero tolerance policies to preventative policies are those with support from school district leaders.

But while some local school districts continue to craft innovative ways to clog the prison pipeline through mentorship and student-to-student accountability, others have worked to chip away at the laws and policies that created it.

In the South, the region arguably most plagued by the racial achievement gap and prison pipeline, the Southern Policy Law Center (SPLC) has led the legal fight against school districts and police departments that they deem to be overstepping their bounds and needlessly funneling students into courthouses and prisons.

“Right now, we’re the only voice in the Deep South fighting this battle,” said Jerri Katzerman, the SPLC’s deputy legal director.

“We have brought numerous lawsuits challenging these policies and noting the disproportionate impact they have on African Americans and children with disabilities.”

The legal battle over the state laws complicate the potential fixes to the pipeline, but that doesn’t undercut the fact that many districts are warming up to the concept of intervention and preventative discipline, Sugai said, and such programs are seeing increasing support from state-level education officials.

School discipline experts and those who study the prison pipeline note those inroads, as well as recent federal attention for the linkage between zero tolerance policies and the expanding of the pipeline, as evidence that broad support for addressing the problem may be on the horizon.

In December, 2012, Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois oversaw the first-ever federal hearing on the pipeline, noting that tons of students had been forced out of schools for relatively minor offenses.

While no definitive solution for the pipeline came out of the hearing, advocates for addressing zero tolerance policies say any national discussion of the pipeline is a step toward clogging it.

This, they add, brings us one step closer to keeping students in classrooms and out of jail cells.


Last modified: March 25, 2014 at 12:00 am
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