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.
“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.”
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.”
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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