By S.E. Williams
“Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected—those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most; and, listens to their testimony. Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any Black man, any poor person — ask the wretched how they fare in the halls of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice.”
– James Baldwin, No Name in the Street 1972
Ask any African American mother what she would do to save the life of her child and without hesitation she will proclaim a willingness to give her life—to fight to her very last breath to keep that child alive.
And yet, not so dissimilar from the Black children stolen from African sands in eons past or sold away on auction blocks six to seven generations ago—every day across America, African America sons and daughters are snatched from their mothers’ arms and funneled through a pipeline of despair, lives lost to a system that locks them away from full participation in life.
Black parents are too often powerless, emasculated in their attempts to push back against a system so legally structured, obviously racist, deeply flawed, and until recently—appeared impenetrable.
The promise of opportunity for an equal education for African American children took root in the minds of Black parents with the 1954 victory of Brown versus the Board of Education. Who could have imagined those long years ago that rather than schools, now bound to provide Black children with equal access to a better future would ultimately find stealthy ways to label too many of these bright, African descended lights as flawed; siphon off great numbers of them; and, funnel them through a legally constructed pipeline to prison. As a result, African American children whose ancestors paid an enormous debt forward for this access are instead handcuffed, shackled, in some instances confined and all too often labeled as “less than” for the duration of their lives.
The problem is no startling 21st century revelation. It has been loudly proclaimed in the public domain for a generation or more—far too many African American children, particularly males are tracked from school to prison as a normal progression in the cycle of life—it has become as natural a progression as growing from fetus to infant; from infant to child; from child to teen; from teen to adult—with the same subtlety, many of their lives take an aberrant turn from pupil to prisoner via a carefully designed pipeline that by the very nature of its definition flows only one way. Literally speaking, the U.S. Department of Defense described a pipeline in logistical terms as, “The channel of support or a specific portion thereof by means of which material or personnel flow from sources of procurement to their point of use.”
The school-to-prison pipeline is a catchall definition for the local, state, and federal policies and practices that move schoolchildren out of classrooms into the criminal justice system. A wise man wrote, “Incarceration versus education has been the prioritized path for certain segments of the population.”
The practice disproportionately impacts students of color, particularly African Americans; and, those identified with learning disabilities, also primarily African Americans. It should come as no surprise that gender is another key component of the pipeline’s fodder (although recent statistics indicate that African American women are now the fastest growing segment of the prison population). Of all the vulnerable groups, African American male students with learning disabilities are the most impacted by these policies.
Political activist William Ayers in his forward to the seminal work Education to Incarceration: Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline by Anthony J. Nocella II, described the probable fate of those who enter it, “A pipeline runs in a single direction, and once entered into the mouth, destiny sweeps everything before it to the bottom; a pipeline offers no exits, no deviations or departures, no way out—unless it fractures.”
School suspensions are frequently identified as the first stop along the pipeline. As a result, suspensions play a pivotal role in moving students from schools to the maze of America’s criminal justice system. Black students are more than three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their White peers. Black students are about 18 percent of the total student population in America but account for 46 percent of those with multiple suspensions. The data for students with disabilities is even more alarming—about one in four Black children with disabilities are suspended at least once versus one in eleven White students.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1997 documented alarming statistics. Firstly, African Americans represented only 16 percent of elementary and secondary students in the U.S. but were 21 percent of total enrollments in special education, and poor African-American children were 2.3 times more likely to be identified by their teacher as having learning disabilities than their White counterparts. The report also recognized that some minorities, again primarily African American boys, were too often misdiagnosed and misplaced into special education programs. It is obvious that not much has changed.
There is a definite correlation between suspensions, low achievement and drop-out rates followed by a definite correlation between drop-out rates and incarceration later in life. Students suspended multiple times are more likely to drop out than students who are never suspended; also, dropping out triples the possibility that a person will be incarcerated.
Despite these correlations and despite research dating back to the late 1990s that show more than sixty percent of state inmates were high school dropouts—the rate of suspensions and expulsions across the country exploded in recent years, primarily as many believe, due to the focus on zero tolerance policies.
The expansion of zero-tolerance policies, hyped and supported by the National Rifle Association in the wake of school massacres, began to escalate with the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 which is blamed by many for the fear, hyper-vigilance and police involvement in schools. Between 1997 and 2007 the number of school resource officers rose a remarkable 38 percent. Critics find it strangely irrational that mass shootings by White students in largely White communities should have such a devastating impact on Black students in largely minority communities; particularly, when one considers how despite the devastating toll gang violence took on minority communities in the late 80s and early 90s it failed to produce such focus.
It is highly a probable deduction the increase in police on campuses led to the increased criminalization of students that ultimately flow through the school-to-prison pipeline. This deduction is supported by research which found children are being arrested at school much more than they were a generation ago—with most of the arrests resulting from a non-violent offense. Even more disturbing for minority communities are the results of a U.S. Department of Education study that proved “more than 70 percent of students arrested in school-related incidents or referred to law enforcement are Black or Hispanic”
In addition, as a result of California’s new approach to school financing, Local Control Accountability Plans have been carefully crafted by both Riverside and San Bernardino County School Districts and are expected to yield measurable improvements in the Inland Empire.
In a recent interview, Robin McIver-Brown of the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools office was asked how the county was addressing the overrepresentation of minorities in suspensions/expulsions, she replied, “The Educational Support Services Curriculum/Instruction and Academic Enrichment Department is supporting districts countywide with the implementation of Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (PBIS).”
According to McIver-Brown the program is a proactive approach to establishing the behavioral supports and social culture needed for all students in a school to achieve social, emotional and academic success. “This is a preventive measure to many of the challenges that can lead to negative behaviors that result in truancies, suspensions and expulsions,” she added.
On questions regarding the school-to-prison pipeline McIver-Brown replied, “It is important that all parents are informed about resources that support students to be college and career ready,“ and added, “ San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools will continue to work with all districts to provide them with the support and resources needed to increase the number of students that are college and career ready.”
Riverside, like San Bernardino County has a focused strategy aimed at improving African American student achievement. Its efforts are bearing fruit. In 2013, there was a 10 percent uptick in the graduation rate.
When Cynthia Glover-Woods, Senior Leadership Associate, Riverside County Office of Education was asked about the overrepresentation of African Americans in special education in her district, she told The Voice how important it is for teachers of all races to continue to recognize and manage their unconscious biases. To achieve improvement in this area she advised, will require both training and awareness.
Beyond zero tolerance policies, in recent years concerns mounted over whether test-based accountability programs like the No Child Left Behind initiative may have served to provide a thinly-veiled incentive for schools to find justification to push out low performing students as a covert way to drive up overall test scores.
There is as clear a correlation between low achievement and suspensions as there is between suspensions and disabilities; disabilities and low achievement; and suspensions and drop-out rates. This is clearly evident when one considers the statistical relationship between school dropouts and incarceration rates—one in three Black men aged 20 to 34 who are behind bars lack a high school diploma.
Dropout rates and school discipline overall are only part of the concern. The way students are identified as learning disabled coupled with the added pressures placed on teachers in today’s relentless testing environment all play a part in the devastating circumstances African Americans find themselves in relative to the school-to-prison pipeline dilemma. Layer on the burden of poverty born by too many Black parents and it makes an impossible situation almost hopeless.
Another area of unconscious complicity is the investment by The California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) in private prisons. Although now careful not to invest in tobacco and firearms, CalSTRS owns approximately 20 million dollars in shares in two of the nation’s most notorious private prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group, through what they defined as a “passive US equity portfolio”.
When Frank Wells, Communications Liasion with the California Teachers Association (CTA) was asked about this and whether his organization would consider pushing for divestment he replied, “Now that the issue has been brought to our attention we will be having further discussions with CalSTRS, but at this point we haven’t really yet done any advocacy specific to these two companies. “
These investments certainly beg the question: Why would an educational system, whose teachers’ retirement funds are partly tied to the success of private prisons that make money for the retirement fund when the beds are filled to capacity work hard to dismantle the beast that feeds it?
While this crisis is both urgent and untenable there is incremental movement in a more positive direction. In 2007, California implemented Senate Bill 81 that mandated an overhaul of the state’s juvenile justice system. It shifted all non violent juvenile offenders from the state to the local level. San Bernardino County seized the opportunity and implemented a more customized and individualized approach to juvenile justice. The results have continued to show promise.
Also, in 2013, the federal Justice and Education Departments issued recommendations on classroom discipline designed to end disparities in how students are punished for violating school rules. The Justice Department sued the state of Mississippi and local officials in 2012 for a school- to- prison pipeline that violated the rights of children—particularly Black and/or disabled.
Inequities in the criminal justice system have historically served as proof of America’s societal racism. Prison labor, some critics believe, has replaced slave labor with prison guards serving as overseers and police acting as modern day as patty rollers.
During the Civil Rights Era, African Americans fought hard for access to power; the goal—to improve the quality of life for their children. Today African Americans are securing that power not only as teachers but principals and school board administrators. They are counted among the ranks of police forces, sheriff’s departments and in a number instances have attained leadership roles in those agencies. They are prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges. African Americans sit on county supervisorial boards, city councils, hold seats in state legislative bodies, are governors, federal legislators and have even attained the presidency. Having accomplished all these things certainly the African American community has the power to change this system—their children’s lives are at stake.