Momentum keeps building for ending the school-to-prison pipeline, but we already know what kids need.
Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline doesn’t require more information or analysis. It requires a will to change strong enough to produce sustained, effective action.
Someone said that the other night at a meeting about the pipeline. And a lot of people said what a lot of people have been saying for a very long time, the gist being don’t criminalize kids, educate them. Well, maybe it takes repetition to sink in deep enough to matter.
Here’s a definition of the pipeline: “ … the policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” That’s from the American Civil Liberties Union, one of numerous organizations working nationally to fix what’s wrong.
Schools went along with the tough-on-crime, no-tolerance attitude that swept politics and the criminal-justice system in the 1980s. The result has been a huge increase in the number of children suspended or expelled, often for classroom behavior that could be dealt with productively if it were treated as a teaching opportunity.
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The meeting last Wednesday evening was co-sponsored by King County Councilmember Larry Gossett and Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien and attended by several of their colleagues who wanted to hear from community members about the problem.
Kids who are expelled or suspended fall behind, often drop out and very often wind up in jail. Some schools jump straight to calling police rather than handling some discipline cases themselves.
And all of this toughness is most often directed at children of color. Data from across the country, including Seattle, show black and brown children are punished at much higher rates than white children for the same behavior.
Two kids do the same thing, and the black or Latino or Native American kid is treated more harshly than the white child, who may not be punished at all.
What so many schools are doing is biased — it fails to educate, and it creates problems by making children more likely to do crime and time. It’s bad on every level.
Of course, it’s hard to change big, bureaucratic institutions and people who’ve gotten comfortable with a system that makes life easier. It’s easier to kick a student out of class than to figure out what’s going on and try to do a little educating.
At the meeting I mentioned, Paul Kurose remembered that his mother, the celebrated Seattle teacher and social justice activist Aki Kurose, would see children sitting in the hallway after being booted out of class by other teachers, and she’d bring them into her classroom. To her a mistake presented an opportunity to learn.
There are many teachers who are heroically good at getting the most from their students, but not everyone is. Most people, not just most teachers, take the path of least resistance.
At the meeting, several panelists and community speakers had a connection to either Middle College High School at High Point or another of its campuses. MCHS takes students who haven’t fit well in a traditional high school and has helped most of its at-risk students graduate and go on to college. Teachers put an emphasis on their relationships with students.
Speakers said Seattle School District is trying to make MCHS more like the rest of its schools when it should be the other way around, even closing one campus.
The speakers championed MCHS as a refuge for students that the larger system won’t adapt to. All the current attention on school discipline means districts are going to have to change, and some are already doing that.
But the stakes are so high, and the problem so obvious, that many other institutions are not waiting for education reform but are changing themselves to reduce or eliminate the role they play in the school-to-prison pipeline.
Last week, King County announced a committee to recommend solutions to the growing racial disparity in the juvenile-justice system. It includes judges, law-enforcement officials, educators, community members, mental-health leaders, social-service providers and even young people.
Already, the justice system in King County has been working to divert young people away from jail and connect them to help they may need.
King County government, the Superior Courts and Prosecutor Dan Satterberg have taken leading roles in changing what happens to children in the system, because they see the negative results when incarceration replaces education.
We know what young people need from their parents, but what do they need from their communities, from the institutions for which we are all responsible? Maybe it’s a little love, caring and opportunities for growth.