MS educator lends his support to dismantling school-to-prison pipeline


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.

Take Action ›

Keep up to date on all the latest education and political news with our weekly Education Votes email. Click here ›

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.”

School-to-prison pipeline

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.”

Reader Comments

  1. I am a teacher with about 30 years in education and most of it has been in schools that serve low income students. In my experience most recent experience it is the home environment that is effecting the students. I currently teach Parenting. We were discussing discipline and my comment was that you did not have to hit kids to make then do what you want them to. I was immediately told that this was not true in black homes because black kids would not do anything without being beat. With this attitude no wonder these students are disrespectful in the the classroom. After all we stopped spanking kids 30 years ago! As been said before the parenting in most homes has gone out the window. They do not know the most basic skills. Last semester I was told that manners and etiquette were nothing but a joke. Real people do not do that kind of stuff. Why was I wasting their time before exams! They live in homes that no one has the same schedule and it is everyone for themselves. Our school had open house in January. The school has over 11,000 students and maybe 50 people showed up! I had one students parent’s come and see me during the whole evening. Education is the last thing on their list. They are just trying to stay above water and provide. We have to look somewhere else than the school. These students have parole officers when they come to the high school! It is not school to prison, it is neighborhood/family to prison. The school is the one place they are safe and have people who care for them!!! Let’s get it straight!!!

  2. There are some pretty dense comments from people who are in the profession of educating our children here. You can’t legislate parenting. And race is smack in the middle of this issue. The two major culprits behind the very real pipeline from prison to schools are the private prison lobby and the politicians they own. It IS a race/poverty problem, only overshadowed by ignorant citizens (parents and teachers) who point fingers at each other, believing that punitive solutions will help.

  3. I am a white woman who is an educator of ESE. My class I have this year is 5/6 black. An incident in my classroom could have resulted in one of my students being charged. Thank- God that did not happen, because as the article says: I want my students to get the skills whether intellectual or anger control so they can have a productive independent fulfilling life. Your efforts will be in my prayers as this needs to be solved of students’ careers being prison.

  4. I’ve been reading the comments of my peers. I,too, have been an educator for over 35 years. If we all would examine the world of education today, things are so different from 10,20,30, and 40 years ago. Parenting is different, the way students are taught or not is different, parental responsibility is out the window, people who HAVE never stepped in a classroom are the ones making the rules, and then there are the TEACHERS who pay the price for the educational system being broken! Think about this; TEACHERS…yes, TEACHERS are the steps, tools, or whatever labels you want to put on us who educate the children. We doing this with our hands tired and mouths glued shut. No voice and when we do speak, our knowledge falls on deaf ears. Then we are shot, critiqued, harassed, abused, bullied, blamed (and I could go on) for all that is
    wrong with the level or quality of the educational system. People!! Please open up your eyes and see that we are all in this together: black, white, blue, green, or yellow. Color and status won’t matter. Let’s fix it by any and all means possible. I’m tired of the excuses.

  5. Holding students responsible and teaching them how to act when receiving priceless education appear to be lacking. When they first introduced the problem in our state, they spent too much time coaching the students about their right rather than their own responsibility. I would like to see more training directed to students of their responsibility and actions that are required while in the classroom and on the school grounds. Our teachers took the time to teach us about citizenship and the importance of respecting the rights and responsibilities of others. What we fail to address while the students are in school will become their harsh reality when they grow up and become a part of society.

  6. I agree with everything mentioned in the article. I am a recently retired teacher with 35 years classroom experience. The emphasis in testing has absolutely contributed to this problem as has the condition mentioned by Mr. Bernal in the comment above. Classroom management, though, has been an increasing problem for all schools. Teachers must have some means of returning to the learning process when their skills at managing a given situation have not resulted in a fairly quick resolution to the problem and ensuring that other students will remain safe. Schools need to develop systems, maybe a team of adults, that help teachers  get quickly back to business but, also attend to the needs of students who are acting out. That team could evaluate the situation by first diffusing the emotional intensity of the student outside the classroom and then seeking a treatment that is appropriate. Teachers must be allowed to teach.

  7. As an educator, I am so sick of the race card and the “school to prison pipeline” idea. It’s what people say instead of addressing the ROOT CAUSE of the child’s behavior. And frankly, there are plenty of us who are sick of hearing these two cards STILL being played!

    The fact of the matter is, parents do not parent. Kids are getting little to no discipline at home. They have no parent at home, or a patent working multilpe jobs to pay the bills and put food on the table. Kids are left to their own devices and some run the streets all night. Others are parked in front of the x-box all night and get very little to no sleep. Some kids are treated at home as their parent’s friend or equal, and are used to calling all the shots at home. These kids are not taught manners or respect or self-control. They are not taught the value of education, and quite frankly, many parents feel that homework is not important. They only care if their child gets to do whatever they want, when they want. In the classroom. These kids are years behind their peers educationally. They disrupt, disrespect, talk back, and try to run the show. A teacher has no choice but to remove them so that others can learn.

    Why do we not address this lack of parenting? It is at the very heart of what ails us. Playing the race card has REALLY gotten old! It’s the excuse some people use rather than addressing the REAL problems these kids have!

    We need classes to teach kids how to behave properly at school. Parents of these kids should be required BY LAW to attend, and complete, parenting classes. If a child who displays this behavior continuously disrupts, and the parent refuses to engage, withhold any state and federal benefits the parent may be receiving until the student and parent show engagement in solving this child’s problems, and until there is a visible improvement in behavior.

    These things are the REAL problems. NOT SKIN COLOR! So stop playing the race card, and the “pipeline to prison” card, and engage at the HOME level. That is where these problems originate and it is where they need to be fixed!

    1. Ms. McGill, Please remember that most of these children have NO Home to go to. I don’t think “The Race Card” is and issue here but statistics are what they are. So…What is your solution?

      1. Mr. Salcido,

        My experience has been that it IS a race issue. The most destructive and disruptive students are the black kids. I do to not like the fact that most of these kids end up in Juvenile hall and/or eventually prison. BUT, the fact is that they do lack parenting and the development of a sense of responsibility and respect. If Mr. Aloe wants to do something, and he did mention “community”, then he needs to go back to his community to lead folks to the well of knowledge that they MUST take responsibility for rearing their children. Additionally, I have found that poverty is a major causal factor to this issue of which we are discussing. What eats at me is that I am beginning to suspect that this is a never ending circle that will not even be dented.

        My experience is not that the kids are sent out of the school for minor infractions. My experience is that violent behavior inclusive of hitting teachers and others and throwing furniture and trashing a room are the reasons that kids get in trouble. Very often, though, we keep them in school instead of sending them home for a few days. What kind of learning environment is that for the kids that DO Come to school to LEARN? Their education is disrupted. Families for whom education is considered very important and have some assets will move their children to “church” based schools and private schools. PUblic schools then continue on with the disruptive kids.

        Poor parenting leads to a loss of possible talent and ability. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Schools these days teach and PARENT. When did that happen?!

        1. ARE YOU SERIOUS!!! Your attitude is the reason why racism persits in the 21st century!!! As an African American forth generation teacher with 2 Masters degrees in education I have dedicated my life to educating EVERY student regardless of the skin color! I want to thank the kind and belevont white person that gives of thier time to teach the ignorant black children. How hard your life must be to ome in contact with such wretechedness on a daily basis!
          Christa L. Taylor

    2. You had me nodding in agreement until you mentioned withholding federal and state benefits. Are you suggesting that out-of-control students only come from low-income homes? I really have to disagree. Some of the worst behaved, bad-attitude, sense-of-entitlement students I have dealt with have come from higher-income families. Lack of parenting skills cuts across economic boundaries.

    3. The data does not lie. These harsh punishments are prescribed disproportionately to African-American students. That’s not a “card”; that’s a reality these students have to live with. To deny that racism exists in America today is to have one’s head in the sand. Your main point however, that we need better parenting is evident. That is the case for us working as partners to enable parents, communities, teachers AND students to support one another. For America to get back on the right track, we must work together as if we are all on the same team, not as adversaries.

  8. LET’S STOP BEATING AROUND THE BUSH. Capitalism is structurally and systemically incapable of providing jobs to all who need them. The capitalist decides what work force HE needs and acts accordingly. That means the smallest number of people at the smallest salaries possible. Joining a gang is a kind of job, and it sometimes pays well. It also breeds corruption if the gangster is big enough to pay off the police. Let’s stop blaming ghetto dwellers and focus on the real problem.

    1. Mr. Bernal,

      Your opinion is well taken, but you did not express your thoughts on what you think is a compatible solution to this problem. Blaming “Capitalism” is not an answer – “More jobs” is not the answer…. Working together to find a solution is what each of us can do to begin to solve this gigantic problem. Without pointing our fingers at others.
      We all understand the underlying motive behind “The Man” and how He uses gangs and drugs to suppress the poor, but as long as we ourselves fuel the notion that more jobs will solve this enormous problem, we are doomed. Doomed, because of all the beautiful minds that we loose from all the “finger pointing”.
      In short, We all need to reform our way of thinking and teaching so we can take back OUR children, OUR public schools and OUR education system. We all need to be a part of the solution, NOT the problem.

      “Ask NOT what your country can do for you, but what YOU can do for your Country”-JFK…Respectfully submitted – PEACE!

  9. I am a retired Special Education teacher (27 years) in the state of Kansas. I believe America’s pubic education system needs to have major reforms put into place to make education salient for our children. Children, not just teachers, need to be accountable for learning the material placed before them and not just move on without an adequate amount of information learned. Our society needs this to continue to be the strong people that Americans have always been.

    Please let me know if there is something I can do to help. I was a member of NEA my entire teaching career. I hope to hear from you soon.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *