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Dr. Salim Bilal-Edwards

An article written in the Spring 2013 edition of Teaching Tolerance reported hundreds of school districts across the country employ discipline policies that push students out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system at alarming rates. The article stated Meridian, Mississippi police routinely transport youth to a juvenile detention center for minor classroom behavior and in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, according to the article police have unfettered authority to stop, frisk, detain, question, and search school children on and off school grounds. These are only a few examples of how students are placed in the school to prison pipeline. Studies have repeatedly revealed that African Americans, Latinos, and students with disabilities are more likely to enter into the school to prison pipeline as these students are more likely to be disciplined and expelled from school than whites or the so called general population. A New York Times article written on March 6, 2012 by Tamar Lewin, states Black students make up 18 percent of the student enrolled in public schools sampled; however, they accounted for 35 of those suspended once, 46 percent of students suspended more than once and 39 percent of expulsions. A new dynamic in the school to prison pipeline are African American girls. A study from Columbia School of Law and the African American Forum reported that in New York African American girls were disciplined 10 times more than White girls and in Boston African American girls were disciplined 11 times more than White girls.

There are several dynamics that need to be addressed as it relates to the school to prison pipeline, to include but not limited to race, cultural diversity, mental health and socio-economic issues. As it relates to cultural diversity, a better understanding of teacher/student cultural backgrounds need to be addressed. For example, a student living in an urban environment where there is a lot of noise may speak loudly in school settings and is quickly labeled a disruptive student by a teacher or administrator who was reared in a suburban or rural area. A teacher from a similar background or understand the cultural issues of the student may say, “We are inside and there isn’t a lot of noise, so you do not have to speak as loud to be heard”. Understanding cultural differences could easily de-escalate a seemingly disruptive student who otherwise may be unfairly disciplined. Understanding cultural dynamics is key to preventing the school to prison pipeline. Some students may have elevated conversations to get their point across and to a person outside of that culture it may appear that a fight or some other act of violence is about to ensue. Cultural competency or cultural diversity extends far beyond race, gender, and socio-economic differences, but must include geographical undercurrents as well.

Cultural competency and cultural diversity must include cultural tolerance. A segment of the student population that are at great risk of entering the school to prison pipeline are LBGTQ students. LBGTQ students are more likely to commit suicide, use illicit drugs, and drop out of school making them more susceptible to becoming incarcerated than their heterosexual counterparts. Intolerance amongst teachers, school administrators, and law enforcement of LBGTQ youth often force these youth to respond in a defensive manner which in turn is seen as cause to suspend, expel, and incarcerate them. The school to prison pipeline studies often neglect to account for the LBGTQ student population who are being funneled into the pipeline at a disturbing rate with very few advocates.

Another issue to be addressed in the school to prison pipeline are youth with mental health disorders. Schools across the country are filled with students who have an Individual Education Plan or IEP which states they have mood or behavioral disorders. The majority of these youth are educable and are in what is called mainstream classes. Several school districts across the country have class schedules that set up these youth to fail. For example, many school districts have 90 minute block classes. Attending 90 minute block classes may be a challenge to students diagnosed with ADD or ADHD or other mood disorders. Many of these students they are repeatedly disciplined, suspended and in some cases expelled from school. In cases where they do not have 90 minute classes often times, the instructional setting does not support students in a manner which is conducive for their learning. As it relates to adolescent mental health, a study by the Center for Disease Control revealed that at least 30 percent of urban youth have PTSD. However, very few youth actually receive a diagnosis of PTSD, therefore, they are given another diagnosis or go undiagnosed. In many cases a so called disruptive student is really crying out for help or support. Instead of getting help they are channeled into the school to prison pipeline.

A major causal factor of the school to prison pipeline is the interwoven web of poverty, mental health, and low-academic performance. Poverty is a major impactor of mental health and mental health is an impactor of substance use and violence, and substance use and violence is an impactor of youth dropping out of school, and youth dropping out of school is an impactor of incarceration. This interwoven tangled web are the ingredients of the school to prison pipeline. When teachers, school administrators, and law enforcement do not understand how to navigate such a tangled web the end result is to blame the victim and push them out of school into what in minority communities is called the System. The system of social services, public assistance, Medicaid, and incarceration, which becomes cyclical as the pattern is repeated by individuals, families, and communities all to the demise of future economic base. Some would say that the System is designed for Big Business to profit while building more prisons, establishing more public charter schools, and psychiatrist medicate youth to continue the cycle for generations. Although the previous sentence is clearly a conspiracy theory, it is not hard to understand why many people in minority communities view the System as a means to get rich off the backs of minorities, the poor, the disenfranchised, persons with mental and behavioral health issues, and the LBGTQ population.

Finally, another contributing factor of the school to prison pipeline are organizations such as a Community Action Agency in Washington, D.C. whose purpose is to serve the most vulnerable and impoverished children, youth, and families in the city. There are several examples of this organization slighting children. On one occasion they accepted a grant to provide services to youth living in a public housing complex. The organization knew they could not provide services to the youth prior to accepting the grant. In fact, they did not provide services to the youth for a year and the grant was only for one year. There were other organizations who could have used the money to provide services to youth in that community or an adjoining community. The organization willfully and without thought neglected to provide services which could have helped youth be re-directed out of the school to prison pipeline. Yet, another example of this same organization neglecting to provide services to youth is an academic enrichment program they operated. The academic enrichment program was designed to work with youth four days a week after school and all day on Saturday on the campus of a local university. Instead of providing educational and family support services four days a week as stipulated in their grant, they only provided services on Saturday at the direction of the division director. Yet another example is the Head Start Program which the organization was awarded grant funding by the city to run. The program was cited for several code violations and the city canceled the contract in less than two years.

Over the past few years there have been individuals arrested and incarcerated for misuse of federal funds, many received harsh sentences to set an example. Organizations who have been known to accept government funds and not provide services should not be able to receive any government funding for any program or services in the future. This organization is not the only organization that is culpable in assisting with the school to prison pipeline. The practice of organizations grossly exaggerating numbers of youth served, accepting money and not providing services, or boldly misusing funds should be made an example of, as we have too many youth who need supportive services being left in the dark due to arrogance, negligence, and gross misconduct by local non-profit organizations. There are too many great organizations willing and ready to provide programs and services to allow heartless organizations to continue to receive government funds to the demise of the youth they were to have served. The school to prison pipeline can only be stopped by increasing cultural awareness, addressing mental health and poverty, prosecuting individuals and stop providing any government funding to organizations with a track record of misusing or blatantly not providing services to youth is a great start in decreasing the school to prison pipeline.

Salim Edwards Dr. Bilal-Edwards is a respected consultant on organizational development/management, and an expert in youth development and social issues in an urban environment.

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1 Comment

  1. Schools to Prison is an excellent presentation of the desecration of our youth by a virtual pipeline..Great insight and spot on commentary..This needs to be addressed ..Thanks Dr Edwards for this article and its straightforwardness.

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