Putting an End to the School to Prison Pipeline

One of the saddest phrases in American education is, Schools to Prison Pipeline. The very concept that schools are actively sending their students to prison is so fundamentally contrary to everything public education should stand for that every American should cry foul and insist that this shameful practice end.  Of course, as is true with many challenging societal problems, ending a shameful practice is easier said than done.

But first, let’s make sure we understand what the Schools to Prison Pipeline is, and how bad the situation has become.  The ACLU’s Racial Justice Project defines the Schools to Prison Pipeline as:

The “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to the policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.  This pipeline reflects the prioritization of incarceration over education.

A variety of methods are used by too many schools, which contribute to this human disaster.  They include:

  • Overuse of zero tolerance of even minor school infractions;
  • Increased reliance on police in schools, resulting in a direct line from a school infraction to juvenile justice prosecution; and
  • Increased use of disciplinary alternative schools, which like prisons, rarely teach students how to behave properly, and instead congregate children with problematic behavior who teach each other how to improve their misbehavior.

Perhaps the most glaring statistic is the remarkable number of students who are suspended in many school districts.  Let’s look at Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), where the problem is rampant.  The most recent suspension data is from the 2010-11 school year.  In that year, 18,797 or 23.2% of MPS’ students were suspended, though that number may be low as MPS has been caught submitting false lower numbers to the US Office of Civil Rights in the past.

Even more troubling is that certain populations of students are suspended at significantly  higher rates by MPS.

  • 33.8% of African-American students were suspended;
  • 44.4% of students with disabilities were suspended.

It is beyond question that,

Higher suspension rates were found to be correlated with lower graduation rates.

Congress has looked at this issue, but sadly has failed to act.  A House Judiciary Committee hearing received a report in 2009 which clearly set forth that:

A dropout crisis exists for minority and economically disadvantaged children in every state. African- American males are incarcerated at a rate six times that of White males and Hispanic males more than double that rate according to recent studies published by the U.S. Department of Justice. The significance of this statistic is that African-American males have the lowest graduation rate of any ethnic group.

Some may shake their heads and simply argue that in order to save well behaved students, we must lock up those who do not behave well.  But this logic has serious flaws.

  • There are solutions to the Schools to Prison Pipeline, including Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS)which fortunately now has a national support center.   A faithfully implemented, adequately funded system of PBIS has shown not only reduction in disciplinary problems, but a correlated increase in academic success.
  • From a selfish point of view, those who are concerned about crime should be concerned about reducing crime so they do not become victims of crime.
  • Recidivism rates are very high.  While there is no commonly accepted measure of juvenile recidivism, a recent Milwaukee County study showed juvenile recidivism rates hovering between 41-58%.

So the bottom line question is whether or not we want to continue our failed unofficial School to Prison Pipeline policy and continue to suspend and incarcerate students who are disproportionately African-American students and students with disabilities or shift gears and education them properly with sufficient resources to become productive citizens.  The answer should be obvious.  Let’s put an end to the School to Prison Pipeline NOW.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

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14 thoughts on “Putting an End to the School to Prison Pipeline

  1. You write: “From a selfish point of view, those who are concerned about crime should be concerned about reducing crime so they do not become victims of crime.”

    Getting people to recognized that crime reduction is in their own self interest is potentially very effective tool in this effort. I’ve heard it referred to as “enlightened self interest”.

  2. The bottom line is whether Federal and State Governments are willing to increase financial resources to public schools to provide the needed resources in terms of staff with the necessary expertise and staff training and materials to actually do a good job of implement successful positive behavioral supports and Interventions. In this era of misguided austerity that is squeezing the funding of public schools, reducing resources, it will be hard to do a good job of implementing PBIS, which, if done right with the needed resources being provide is highly effective! But it takes money and public school funding is increasingly taking big hits and the back seat in terms of government spending priorities.

  3. Sadly, I report that education has become scale from 1 to 1000… rather than 1 to five. There are so many perceptions what is education. This is needed because it keeps the fire burning in the schema of politics. Whoever becomes the next candidate does not have an orientation for education that is clear and concrete to the community, family, and to students. Yet, it is so simple. It is a public pathway that drives the molding of body, mind, emotion, and spirit of a human being regardless of color, race or creed. Each subject’s flesh, bone and spirit derives himself to an identity that he/she owns. If this is true. Where is the structure known as school? Where are the teachers? Where are all the programs that have market themselves into the loop-hole of enterprise. Because neither the structure or the programs can make up what teachers reflect every day a sense of community. This license to teach and learn is now taken away. Social problems have increase and new jobs have developed to meet the needs of social problems. The 200,000 citizens have identified their path of isolation. There is a huge separation between youth and education ideology. And, the infant mind, flesh, and spirit allows his/her conscious to reflect defenses that lives her/him in the same place to do another wrong doing such as to kill his/her baby brother or baby sister. Indeed. It is sadness when we see the reality of education.

  4. There has to be responsible PARENTING. No clear rules at home lead to the problems in school. Teachers are often told by parents that they are wrong when they expect students to keep their hats off and to turn off their cellphone. I’d be happy if courts required parents attend a class to learn to parent after their child gets into trouble enough times.

    • While you are certainly right that good parenting is critical to a child’s success, sadly, we all suffer if we fail to deal with the children who do not receive adequate parenting. Not only will they likely enter the school to prison pipeline, but along the way, they will victimize one or more innocent people. It is in ALL of our interests to help that child regardless of their parenting.

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