by Brian Washington
In his 17-years in education, Mississippi educator Kevin Gilbert has worked as a bus driver, a teacher, a substitute teacher, and an assistant principal. Gilbert is hoping his experiences will serve him well next week, when he tackles a disturbing national trend referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s an epidemic that is putting too many young students of color in juvenile jails and detention centers for minor school infractions and other situations that should not involve law enforcement.
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On Wednesday, March 19th, Gilbert is participating in a panel discussion in his home state which is designed to bring community and education stakeholders and elected leaders together to figure out how to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. The event is sponsored by the National Education Association (NEA) and U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi.
“Our students are being pushed out of our schools and into a direct line that’s feeding our prison systems,” said Gilbert, who now serves on the executive committee of the NEA, which represents more than 3 million educators nationwide. “Our schools are supposed to help create productive, civic-minded citizens who give back to society. But this trend is having a more detrimental impact, especially on students of color.’’
African-American and Latino students often face harsher discipline than their white counterparts and are more likely to end up in the pipeline. According a recent PBS report, Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended as compared to whites, and 70 percent of students involved in “in-school” arrests or referred to law enforcement are black or Latino.
“Teachers and education support professionals want to see all students thrive and succeed in the classroom,” said Gilbert. “However, with education resources being cut nationwide, many educators are so caught up in trying to do more with less, many of them are not even aware that when they are forced to handle disruptive situations and remove a student from the classroom, they may be unknowingly feeding the school-to-prison pipeline. We’ve got to make more educators aware of this problem and give them better tools and skills for handling discipline problems.”
Gilbert maintains that zero-tolerance policies will definitely be part of the discussion. He says such policies, which were put in place to prevent violent and destructive situations in schools, are being misused and keeping the school-to-prison pipeline alive.
“Some schools are using them for small disciplinary problems, like a dress code violation, and incidents of disruptive behavior that are not serious enough to warrant a student being suspended or expelled from school,” said Gilbert. “This is leading to many of our students being introduced to the justice system early.”
However, a rise in high-stakes tests is also feeding the pipeline. These tests undermine engagement between educators and students and often result in students acting out because they are bored, which leads to a suspension or expulsion.
Some educators are even pressured to push out those students who may score low on such tests in an attempt to boost a school’s overall test result. The bottom line—students not in school are prime targets for getting into trouble and police custody.
Gilbert says his approach to the panel will be to alert folks that the National Education Association is aware of the school-to-prison pipeline and stands ready to be proactive in trying to find a solution. The NEA has teamed up with rapper-turned-singer Aloe Blacc (see video above) to get the word out about this problem, but Gilbert says more needs to be done.
“Our local affiliates and local school districts must work together to amend some of the discipline policies that are feeding the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Gilbert. “And additionally, we have to make sure that educators have the support they need to better understand the students they are serving and their educational needs.”