Educators vow to keep students from entering “school-to-prison” pipeline


By Brian Washington/Photo by Steven DePalo

It sounds ridiculous, but imagine students being sent to jail simply because they wore the wrong colored socks to school. It’s happening in places like Meridian, Mississippi, where students, many of them African-American and as young as 10-years-old, are being arrested by police officers for minor school infractions and placed in juvenile jails and detention centers.

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Educators and other social justice advocates call it the “school-to-prison” pipeline—a metaphor used to describe a growing national trend involving students who are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems based on school matters that should never involve the police or jail.

According to Nathaniel Brown, Jr., a Mississippi educator, African-American and other students of color are especially vulnerable.

Mississippi educator Nathaniel Brown, Jr.
Mississippi educator Nathaniel Brown, Jr.

“The next generation of African-American talent is being siphoned off,” said Brown, a social studies teacher in Jackson, Mississippi, which is about 90 miles west of Meridian. “Those children, those minds, are spending their time in prison. There are so many potential contributors to society who are not being given an opportunity.”

The situation was so bad in Meridian that the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against the city’s police department, the Lauderdale County Youth Court, and the state of Mississippi.

In addition, a U.S. District Court Judge in May issued a landmark consent decree designed to reform school discipline practices that “unlawfully channel black students out of their classrooms and, too often, into the criminal justice system.”

“The system was firmly entrenched in place,” said Brown. “If that child was arrested at the school, they had to spend time at the detention center, and it got to a point where students were starting to become desensitized to it. They started to develop a ‘jail mindset’—jail was no longer a threat.”

Maryland educator Georgene Fountain
Maryland educator Georgene Fountain

In Meridian, the consent decree bans police intervention from all infractions that can be safely and appropriately handled under school disciplinary procedures—including instances of disorderly conduct, school disturbances and disruptions, loitering, trespassing, profanity, dress code violations, and fighting that doesn’t include physical injury or weapons.

However, this problem is not just limited to Mississippi. Experts believe school-to-prison pipelines are perpetuated by zero tolerance policies, which have been in effect in American schools for more than 20-years. They say these policies criminalize minor school infractions.

A rise in high-stakes testing nationwide also plays a role. High-stakes tests, like high school exit exams, which are taken by 70 percent of high school students nationwide, put pressure on educators to teach to the test. This undermines student engagement, which could lead to bored students acting out and getting suspended. Some educators are also pressured to push out low-test scorers to boost a school’s overall test results. In any event, students who are not in school are more likely to get in trouble and end up in police custody.

“But we know teachers are in this work because they love children and want to nurture their potential,” said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, which recently sponsored a conference in Washington, DC to reform school discipline and accountability policies and show educators what they can do to end school-to-prison pipelines. “That’s why teachers need to be on the front lines of dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.”


School-to-prison pipeline

Last month in Atlanta, nearly 9-thousand educators serving as delegates to the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly approved a new business item to help school districts nationwide end school-to-prison pipelines. The NEA represents more than 3 million teachers, education support professionals, higher education faculty, and college students studying to be educators.

“Having the NEA endorsement with this NBI [ed note: New Business Item], that’s a huge thing to carry back to my school building and say look at what we are doing,” said Georgene Fountain, who voted in favor of the NBI and organized educators in Montgomery County, Maryland, where she teaches, to take a similar stand against school-to-prison pipelines. “The problem is real in Montgomery County—just as real as it is in any other area.  It may be worse in some parts of the country, but from my perspective if it affects one person that’s one too many.”

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Reader Comments

  1. FYI: In Tacoma, Washington,among many things happening in our state,we have two groups that I am involved with putting major focus on the school to prison pipe line.

    Dr. Dexter Gordon, tenured professor at Puget Sound University and currently running for Tacoma School Board, has been the leadership energy for two groups highly involved with this problem. Dr. Gordon first volunteered to run a book study on Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? by Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr. at Urban Grace Church to proceed the MLK, Jr. holiday.

    This was the kernal that grew two new Social Justice groups: The Conversation, an open membership group focused on social justice issues in Tacoma, and The Race and Pedagogy Initiative at Puget Sound University, which hosts a national conference on that initiative every three years and many forums for both the university and the Tacoma, in the interim periods. Currently, our main foci have been the School to Prison Pipeline and The Achievement and Graduation Gaps in schools between the success rate of minority and caucasian students, especially for African American males. Both groups have web pages where those interested in what is going on here can find both history and what is comming up.

    Thank you for presenting and focusing on the school to prison pipeline. It is the new form of slavery in our country and growing very fast. The most moving explanations of this problem that I have whitnessed are the artist contributions that Race and Pedagogy is including in all of their offerings; very in line with Common Core strategies and practices.

  2. Location IS EVERYTHING..You are so right.I fought terrorizing administrators for 15 years.What a nightmare. Teaching used to be pleasurable,but not the last pit in which I was placed

  3. I was an elected state delegate to the NEA RA in Atlanta. I objected to this NBI for a number of reasons. One, I resent the implication that educators are responsible for this fictional “school to prison pipeline.” If Rush Limbaugh had put forth this idea, educators would be up in arms. Two, all too often administrators are “handcuffed” by local or state rules prohibiting or discouraging expulsion or suspension. When schools can’t put out problem students, there is a “school to different occupation pipeline” for teachers, and a “public school to private school pipeline” for parents of students who are fed up with the disruptive students who are ruining our schools. No one supports sending a child to jail for wearing unfashionable socks, but the pipeline that these NBI authors are so proud of starts in the home and community, NOT the schools.

    1. What is needed is a boot camp for unruly, disruptive students with a strong disciplined daily schedule outside their school. Parents/guardians may visit on Sunday; if the student does well during the course of the week, the parent may stay for dinner.
      At the beginning of each morning, students would throw on running/ walking clothes and either run two miles or walk three to four miles. After the run/walk, shower and dress for breakfast and their academic classes. Those students who complete all work demonstrating at least fair effort may choose woodworking, music, varied visual arts etc. for Friday. The last two hours on Friday would be spent on career development and practical survival skills needed after all schooling is completed. Perhaps returning men and women from the military could be trained to set these boot camps across the country which would truly elevate and assist all adults who are committed to teaching.

  4. I live in a county with a high poverty rate. It’s sad that 60+ % of our school children qualify for free and reduced lunches. Small infractions such as tobacco use get a court date and fines. I always thought it wasn’t legal to profit from the delinquency of a minor. I think we could do better than that in 2013. Now that ALEC has worked hard to destroy our right to collective bargaining they should be proud of the fact low paid teachers are entering into the poverty level. According to Federal guidelines we pass out for the Federal lunch program, many teachers fall into the poverty category. All my system has given us for a cost of living increase has been a one time “bonus” from the state of Tennessee and nothing from our local government for the last several years. I think our government could do better than that as well in 2013. What’s next? Put teachers in jail for scoring low on evaluations?

  5. We must focus on ages 4 – 11 in order to ensure another generation ending up not being able to READ !!! They move onward and end up fearful due to lack of Reading Skills – Illiteracy is Our Enemy !!!

    With 87% of Our Children Reading Below Grade Level it doesn’t help to prevent the outcomes – We must make all concerned Accountable –


  6. If the NEA is serious about this, we should be seeing and hearing the NEA leadership and consultants/spokespersons endorsed by the NEA making bona fide efforts to put this on the front burner of our nation’s consciousness. We should be seeing them on the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, The View, the morning news/talk shows, etc. We do not. Instead we see the likes of Michele Rhee making such appearances, peddling their books and venemous teacher and public school bashing messages. We should see and hear our leaders and spokespersons denouncing the likes of Vallas, Gates,Duncan,TFA,K12 Virtual charters,ALEC, and the rest of the high-profile education de-formers working to help their corporate cronies (and themselves)to privatize public education and siphon off public funds to the 1%. We do not. And we certainly should see our leadership leading vocal and visible demonstrations in places like Meridian, Mississippi if the child abuse in the name of public education has actually taken place. We do not.

  7. More than 20 years ago we heard insidious rumors of data sharing between the State Education Dept. and the Dept. of Corrections. The purpose was to base the # of “projected” prison beds on the reading levels of the (then current) cohort of 3rd graders. The projected prison building targets were supposedly based on the # of 8 year olds who were not reading at grade level. Given the explosion of prison building nation-wide and persistently discouraging literacy, such rumors sound eerily consistent with the current “school-to-prison” observations.

  8. I am Mississippi educator. I know the dynamics of the public schools systems. Majority of schools systems I have worked for has schools and district policies in play. However, most district and schools do not strongly stand by their own policy. I do not think testing is to blame. Parents in low income school district total control and will consistently undermine school policies because they do not see the sense in it. They will send their children to school undermining the school policy. I agree, sending a child to jail for wearing the wrong socks is ridiculous. Schools in Mississippi need to be more proactive, remove power from the parents, and educate the community, not just their children. Developing policies that are comprehensive and fair should be a vocal point to school administrators. The parents will be able to understand why their school are conducted in that manner. I worked in Jackson Public Schools. Teachers are struggling to teach students because the administrators take a hands off approach to managing the student body, but do their best to manage their teachers. I was miserable and didn’t enjoy my job. I moved to a better district where they invest in their teachers and student. Their vocal point in on providing the best education for the students and community. Although my room is smaller, I love my job. I love what I do and it makes me remember why I entered this field in the first place.

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