The School-to-Prison Pipeline


The School-to-Prison Pipeline

I remember, when I was a high school teacher, working with students who I thought were walking a tightrope between going to college and going to jail. Up to this point, my teaching life has insulated me so that I’ve only seen the students who ended up in college. Now I see the other side, the ones who were not caught by the “catchers in the rye” we teachers sometimes fancy ourselves to be. Now I see the ones who were harmed, rather than helped, by a system that contributed to their senses of failure and their self-images as outlaws.

There are students in my class who were picked up at their high school by the police, who committed crimes as 15-year-old runaways, who have moved from foster home to juvenile detention facility to a maximum security prison, who have grown from boys to men… in prison. Many of them are serving life sentences, with no possibility of parole, for crimes they were found guilty of while they were still adolescents.

There is much talk about the school-to-prison pipeline. Briefly, many youth advocates contend that the over-policing of urban schools, racial profiling of “at-risk” students, zero tolerance disciplinary policies leading to suspensions and expulsions, and low academic expectations for certain students create a direct pipeline to our nation’s prison system for some youth.

While some students in our class did receive decent educations, in both public and, private schools, many testify to a difficult school experience that only amplified their challenges at home.

LaVon, writes of a “miseducation”, so commonly experienced by African-American males:

  As I grew older I began to learn about myself, who the real me really was. I started     educating myself in ways to become a better man, in how to become a so-called black man. I started recognizing the miseducation I was receiving from my schools for what it was. It was this misguided message that propelled me to seek knowledge elsewhere.

Chris writes of being misdiagnosed with a speech impediment because of his accent:

Very early on I was diagnosed by the school as having a speech impediment because they believed that I had an issue pronouncing my R’s correctly. I can recall the classes making me feel as though something was wrong with me and added to my insecurities speaking up which in turn developed a mumbling problem. I cannot remember ever feeling as though these ‘special’ classes ever helped. Thinking back, I believe my lean towards slang was orchestrated to hide my ‘impediment’ and give the appearance that I was in more control.

Many educators have gathered in conferences around the country to begin discussions of “dismantling the school to prison pipeline.” Schools are beginning to review zero-tolerance discipline policies, how students are sorted into special education, and ways in which negative beliefs about particular students are communicated both verbally and nonverbally.

Some schools are beginning to change both their practices and their cultures.  For example, in an admittedly schmaltzy but gutsy move, The Dallas Public Schools tried to change the tone of the discourse around students by having a young African American male serve as their keynote speaker. He began his speech by asking the auditorium of educators, “Do you believe in me?

It is much more likely that those of you reading this blog can affect change within our current public school system rather than within the walls of a “correctional facility.” I think awareness of the carceral state needs to be a part of every teacher training program. If I only I knew as high school English teacher what I have learned this past year teaching in the prison.



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