by Brian Washington
Today Education Votes is reporting a follow up to a story that we told you about last week focusing on Mississippi educator Kevin Gilbert, who took part in a community-based discussion with educators, parents, and community and elected leaders about ending a national epidemic known as the school-to-prison pipeline. The school-to-prison pipeline is primarily putting students of color behind bars for minor school infractions and disciplinary matters.
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On Wednesday, March 19th, Gilbert, who is on the executive committee of the National Education Association, which represents about 3 million educators nationwide, took part in a discussion on the matter in his home state. It was sponsored by U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson who represents the state’s 2nd Congressional District.
Education Votes caught up with Gilbert to discuss the issue and the event, which drew a standing-room-only crowd, and ask him why there now appears to be so much interest in the school-to-prison pipeline.
KG: It’s an issue that’s student-centered. It’s an issue that’s impacting the students that we serve. The panel discussion was attended by parents and citizens, as well as community leaders who are all concerned about our students. The sense of urgency around this issue and the need to do something about it has been heightened.
It is starting to gain a lot of national attention as more studies come out showing the school-to-prison pipeline has an impact on dropout and non-graduation rates as well as disparities in discipline. People are now trying to understand it and look at it as an issue we have to address.
EV: What issues came to the forefront during the discussion?
KG: A lot of topics came up, including zero-tolerance policies. Parents are saying basically what we (NEA and educators) have been saying—that we need to do things differently and dismantle this school-to-prison pipeline. We also got the chance to announce a new guide on restorative practices that is being co-sponsored by NEA and several other pro-student, pro-public education groups. We’re hoping this will help educators be more conscious about the school-to-prison pipeline and say, “Let me pause, think and figure out a more constructive way to handle these minor disciplinary issues and help students avoid the cycle of being negatively labeled and pushed out of school.”
EV: What are restorative practices?
KG: Restorative practices focus on handling discipline in a way that fosters and develops corrective behavior without pushing students out of the classroom. These practices take discipline issues from a different angle and are not so quick to pull the trigger on suspensions and expulsions. It’s more about understanding the students and using things like group discussions and counselors to get at the root of what could possibly be causing the disruptive behavior. The goal is to help turn the student around and move them forward in instructive learning as opposed to suspending or expelling them from school. That’s a generic explanation, but that’s what restorative practices are.
EV: What were the major takeaways from the event?
KG: There’s a lot of passion around this subject, and parents want the education community at the center of it trying to make this right. Parents want to work with us to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and do something about the disparities in regards to discipline. Also, NEA is now partnering with allies and advocates across the country. Hopefully this will lead to a wealth of opportunities for our local affiliates to engage in student-centered, union-led work to help children succeed.
EV: What are the next steps at this point?
KG: As I see it, for the National Education Association, the first step is to continue to be at the center, at the heart, of this debate. Educators need to be the ones advocating on behalf of their students.
Second, we need to push out resources to schools and communities, like the restorative practices guide, and provide more training for educators that focuses on cultural competencies, bullying, and ELL training—those things that will help educators tackle issues that may come up in the classroom.
And the third thing is we need to continue to foster collaborative relationship between school districts, union locals and parents as well as community and civic leaders. We need to continue to bring them to the table so that we can collaboratively continue to work on behalf of our students. And we’ve got to continue to tackle other issues, like high-stakes testing and lack of funding. These issues help feed the school-to-prison pipeline and the discipline disparities. For instance, inadequate funding and high-stakes testing both put a terrible amount of pressure on educators—so much so that they have to constantly (struggle to) perform at a certain level. This puts them in a position where they can’t afford to take time to deal with minor discipline issues in the classroom, which can result in more students being inadvertently pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline. We have got to change this.