Does The School-to-Prison Pipeline Run Through Your Home?

CJ Quartlbaum

We send our children to school with the hopes they will receive a good education. We expect school will be a safe place for them to learn, be nurtured, and molded into our future leaders. Sadly, this is not always the case. Many poor families are forced to send their kids to underfunded and overcrowded schools. Students often work with outdated textbooks and see many of their favorite clubs and activities axed. Even more insidious is the overcriminalization of black students.

What is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

The school-to-prison pipeline is a series of written and unwritten guidelines and policies that work to transition students out of school and into the prison system. This shows up in school discipline, police presence, and zero-tolerance policies among other things. These guidelines and policies affect children of color more than any other group in the country.  

There are schools that have armed guards, police dogs, surveillance cameras, police officers, and metal detectors. Students often interact with authority figures who have no stake in their education and are often handled physically and violently for rule infractions. Children are thus pre-conditioned to the prison environment in their schools.

In these contexts, students often face harsh discipline. In her book, “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools,” Monique Morris states: “Black girls are 16 percent of the female student population, but nearly one-third of all girls referred to law enforcement and more than one-third of all female school-based arrests.”

Morris breaks it down further: “Black youth make up 16 percent of public school students and 9 percent of private school students in grades K-12 nationwide but account for: 35 percent of in-school suspensions, 35 percent of those who experience out-of-school suspension, 46 percent of those who experience multiple out-of-school suspensions, and are 39 percent of those who are expelled.” These often occur over minor infractions such as having a cell phone, talking in class, and public displays of affection.

The unfortunate truth is this level of discipline starts much earlier than one would expect. A report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights shows that black children make up 18 percent of preschoolers but 48 percent of those receiving multiple out-of-school suspension.

Children are also expected to learn in inadequate environments. Counselors, social workers, and meaningful mental health services are rare. Underfunded schools have older textbooks and limited access to the latest technology. In “Black Stats,” Monique Morris highlights: “46 percent of black students are educated in schools that fail to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress requirements (academic standards established by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001).” In these conditions, teachers and administrators are often pressured to raise test scores, passing that burden on to the students.

The Effectiveness

This despicable system essentially prepares children to be prisoners one day. Students become used to being monitored and searched. They come to expect harsh, unnecessary punishment for minor infractions. They are also placed into the justice system at an early age.   

When a child has a record of discipline early, it diminishes their chances of being accepted into a good college as many will not want to accept a “problem child.” Studies show that people who do not go to college earn significantly less than their peers who do. In “Black Stats,” Morris points out: “The unemployment rate for black high school dropouts is 47 percent. By comparison, the unemployment rate for white high school dropouts is 26 percent.” The long-term damaging effects of the overcriminalization of black students is far-reaching and can have generational impact, continuing cycles of poverty.

The tactics used to drive students from the classroom to the jail cell are hope killers. What hope does a third grader have when they are taught that their mere existence is enough to get them in trouble? When the kid who finally figures it out is rejected from all of their choice colleges because of mistakes made in middle school, what hope do they have? When the streets come calling and there are no after-school activities to participate in because they have all been cut, what’s stopping children from answering the call?

The school-to-prison pipeline conditions children to believe there is no way out. It kills dreams. It enforces beliefs that black and brown children are worse than their peers. It teaches children to distrust authority and often gives them first-hand experience with our court system that they do not need to have. Our systems of incarceration provide very little in terms of rehabilitation and therefore our children are being placed on a path of career criminality early on.  

What Can Parents Do?

We must be our children’s biggest advocates. Parents have to be on the front lines fighting for their children. We must show up at every PTA meeting we can, meet with teachers and administrators individually, and put pressure on the local school board to improve conditions.  

Most public schools are financed in large part by the property taxes of the area. Poor communities tend to have lower property taxes and thus fewer resources to work with. While waiting for local government to come through and care for our kids, we have to do it first. This may mean pooling our money together so classrooms can receive updated textbooks, opening our homes to students, and providing tutoring where we can.  

We cannot sit idly by while our children’s schools are turned into mini-prisons. We have to fight for reduced police presence and an increase in counselors. Let’s also challenge the administrators on their discipline policies. We absolutely must attack state governments for putting the pressure on teachers to merely “teach to the test.”

A system designed to keep us in a perpetually low position must be abolished. There is no reason for our children to be treated the way they are. No matter how bleak things may look, we can never stop advocating because the lives of our children are depending on it.


2 thoughts on “Does The School-to-Prison Pipeline Run Through Your Home?

  1. Marlo

    If parents don’t advocate, I don’t think that much of anything can be done in the sincere interest of the child. The so called school to prison pipeline BEGINS in the home and is reinforced by the schools with policies like “Restorative Justice” which schools receive federal dollars for not suspending disruptive, problematic, and violent kids in the classroom. This was a policy started under former President Obama to curb racism in terms of black kids being suspended at higher rates than white kids. Listen, I am black and will be the first to admit that black kids often tend to have higher suspension rates because they tend to be the most disruptive and violent! And with over 10 years as an educator, I am qualified to make this statement. Is there some racism, sure, but there are more folks who are sick and tired of dealing with poorly behaved children who must be told literally sometimes 45 times a day to “be seated”. And that’s just one child. And heaven forbid you complain to a Principal about this disruptive child who is preventing other students from learning as you will most likely be retaliated against. I have been physically assaulted by students and I am NOT a meek individual. This mess starts with the parents who most of the time cannot be found on parent teacher conference night, but are front and center the next AM when little Qua’shon has his iPhone that he wasn’t supposed to be using confiscated, but you can’t afford to dress him properly for the winter weather. It starts with the parents!

  2. Elizabeth Neal

    My understanding (as an outsider) is often the home life for these poor kids is not ideal (single parent, drugs, violence, abuse, high mobility, etc.). If that is the case, what can be done to give these kids hope and a chance? I am asking sincerely with a high concern for the school situations here in Atlanta where I live. Various sources connected with some of these type of schools keep mentioning the home life as the biggest obstacle for these kids. If parents aren’t advocating for their kids and pushing them to excel, what can be done by outsiders such as myself? Would you suggest mentoring in the school? Will that make an impact? Thank you for your sharing your perspective.

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