WATCH: One Man’s Fight Against the School-to-Prison Pipeline

December 3, 2019


Victor Rios says he has a childhood memory of sleeping on a kitchen floor, shivering, as roaches and rats crawled around him.

Raised in poverty by a single mother who had only a third-grade education, Rios struggled as a student as he faced challenges beyond the school walls. By the time he was 15, he had been convicted of three felonies. At one point, it looked like he wouldn’t receive his high-school diploma.

But now, Rios is a professor and associate dean at the University of California, Santa Barbara — and he’s working to empower young people who have been “pushed out” of school for reasons that include systemic forces beyond their control.

“We’re not here to give you the power; you already got it,” Rios tells a group in the short video above. “We’re just here to facilitate. To see that power grow.”

Rios’s journey is chronicled in The Pushouts, a documentary that comes to PBS on Friday, Dec. 20, as part of Latino Public Broadcasting’s VOCES series, and in the above digital short. Both the film and the short follow along as Rios’s life comes full circle: He begins working with YO! Watts, a program for young adults who did not graduate high school, which is run by Martin Flores, a mentor he had in high school.

“By saying ‘dropout,’ you’re putting the blame on the individual,” Flores says. “Pushed out, that says, ‘Wait a minute, system. What’s going on here? What are we doing wrong as a system to address this issue?’”

The Pushouts draws on footage of Rios that was filmed during the making of School Colors, a 1994 FRONTLINE documentary that followed students at Berkeley High School over the course of a year. Rios was one of many students from low-income backgrounds who seemed to be falling through the cracks.

But as the new film recounts, Rios would ultimately overcome the barriers that shaped his early years, thanks in part to the power of Flores’ mentorship. He went on to earn not just his high-school diploma, but a college degree and then a Ph.D. As a sociologist, he’s become an academic expert on the school-to-prison pipeline. Rios has dedicated his life to disrupting the very systems that he was once trapped by, and encouraging others to do the same.

In The Pushouts, viewers witness Rios in action as he teams up with Flores to work with youths participating in the YO! Watts program.

“I see Victor in a lot of these young people,” Flores says in the film.

And Rios hopes the program’s participants will see themselves in him, too.

“Martin Flores, he says to me, ‘Brown people like us, we could go to college too, man,'” Rios tells a group of young people. “We believe in you. And we will love it that you believe in yourself so much that you could accomplish the unbelievable.”

The Pushouts premieres Friday, December 20 on PBS, at and on the PBS Video App. The film is part of American Graduate, an initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB).


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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