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The Realities of the School to Prison Pipeline

Posted in 2015, CFYJ Updates Friday, 31 July 2015

By Mette Huberts, CFYJ Fellow

As summer begins to wrap-up and the thoughts of another school year creep back into our minds, this week the CFYJ fellows focused on a different type of school experience at our last Summer Institute Event. Kaitlin Banner, a staff attorney in the Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track program at the Advancement Project, was kind enough to share her experience and knowledge on the school-to-prison-pipeline with us. She not only explained the causes and consequences of policies that form the pipeline, but also talked openly about how we must go about reforming the issue.
 
The “school-to-prison-pipeline” is a buzz term used to emphasize how our education systems are indirectly pushing kids out of school and on a pathway to prison. Due to the combination of an excess of strict zero-tolerance policy laws and vague laws that lead to high disparity rates, students are being arrested for “crimes” such as scribbling on desks and hugging a friend. Over 3 million students each year receive an out-of-school suspension as punishment for such acts, with black children having a one in six chance of being suspended at least once. This overuse of out of school suspensions only exacerbates the problem, forcing kids to fall behind in school and become disengaged. One way to combat this overuse of suspension and expulsion, Banner informed us, is to create a longer, more intensive due process for students facing such punishments. This longer process is a heavier burden on the schools and therefore discourages them from immediately turning to suspension and expulsion where it may not be necessary. 
 
In addition, Banner explained that the more we allow our schools to feel like prisons, the more inclined students will be to act like criminals. Instead of implementing surveillance cameras, armed guards, and metal detectors, schools need to start talking to kids about their actions in a developmentally appropriate manor. Referring to things such as speaking back to a teacher as “disorderly conduct” and swiping headphones as “theft” only tells the child that they are a criminal rather than simply a teenager acting out. While of course these actions cannot be condoned, they must be addressed with consideration of age and situational factors. At the Advancement Project, one of the solutions Banner uses to fight the pipeline is to implement restorative justice practices in schools, encouraging a focus on adult to student and peer to peer relationships instead of punishment. This has proven much more successful than the harsh punishment on small acts of wrongdoing that schools have previously (and often still do) used. 
 
By identifying both the causes and consequences of the school-to-prison-pipeline, Banner helped us better understand the faults of the system and the pressing need for change. Through providing ideas and tactics of reform she inspired and encouraged us to be more consistently aware of the realities of the school-to-prison-pipeline and to call for reform. There are millions of lives at stake here, millions of children being unjustly treated and sent down the wrong path from their school, a place many of us instinctively deem safe. It is up to us to recognize and work to end the pipeline and to refocus our schools on education instead of punishment.