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Understanding the School to Prison Pipeline

Posted in 2014, Across the Country Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Understanding the School to Prison Pipeline

CFYJ’s first Summer Institute session focused on the School to Prison Pipeline. Kaitlin Banner, a staff attorney at the Advancement Project, informed us about youth whose futures are being destroyed by a system that pushes them from the education system to the prison system. Additionally, she emphasized ways to dismantle this pipeline, and taught us essential tools to become true advocates for change.

The pipeline is fueled by zero tolerance laws—which replicated the zero tolerance drug laws of the 80s—that were implemented in schools in the late 90s after tragedies like Columbine. Harsher regulations continued as more acts of mass shootings and violence occurred in school settings. School administrators believed preemptive harshness would prevent later problems. This led to school policies that criminalized basic adolescent behavior. These policies, which were implemented after school shootings in wealthy, predominantly white, suburban schools like Columbine began to negatively impact the urban, predominantly black/Latino public schools, and the Newtown shooting seems to be accelerating this trend.

Current policies push students into jails by both directly criminalizing certain activities and by indirectly increasing youth vulnerability for imprisonment by pushing them out of school. Kaitlin voiced concerns about the negative school climate caused by reduced funding, police presence in school, overly harsh and arbitrary discipline policies that disproportionately target youth of color, and school budgets that prioritize police and deans of discipline over counselors. She explained how funding based on test results tempt teachers to “remove kids who did not perform well on tests by enacting punishments that force them to leave class.” These policies transform school from a place children can begin to conceptualize their future to a place where they lose it. A Florida study demonstrated one suspension doubled a student’s likelihood to drop out of school.

Through identifying these flawed policies, Kaitlin helped us envision a better future rooted in returning schools to a positive learning environment. She concluded with recounting several success stories where communities were able to fight the overly punitive or unfairly arbitrary policies. She stressed the importance of a full community effort in implementing change and empowering the community from within. Graduating high school is not only essential for youth, but for society that will one day employ these youth. We need to advocate finding ways to keep kids in school, not make it easier to push them out. For more information about the Advancement Project’s work with dismantling the pipeline, click here, or visit the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse page.