Breaking down the school-to-prison pipeline

flyernov9       On November 9, 2015, Towson University hosted a conversation about the school-to-prison pipeline. The panel featured A. Adar Ayria of Associated Black Charities, Jamal Jones, Baltimore Algebra Project, teachers from Matthew Henson Elementary, and Dr. Reginald Thomas, a pastor from Gesthemane Baptist Church, and Pat Welch, the dean of Morgan State University’s college of education. While I moderated the panel and introduced the idea of the school-to-prison pipeline comes from,  each panelist shared a perspective on how we have gotten to where we are with regard to this pipeline. MinorInfractions_5310ca4cab5cf_w1500

Institutional and structural racism was indicted as the culprit behind this process. This was not an academic conversation in which processes were named and research provided. Rather, the institutions, including Towson, were implicated in how it is that we need to be doing better to inform how we educate our future teachers to be aware of their role in contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Using harsh punishments, low expectations, and limiting the access and opportunity for young people of color to rigorous academics, teachers can derail the educational futures of youth. After raising awareness, faculty need to prepare future teachers better to deal with the students they serve culturally, social-emotionally, and academically. This is a paradigm shift for the university and for the schools themselves. The event was meant to kickstart a longer conversation in how teachers can serve the needs of students of color in a more supportive way so that we move away from the pipeline to prison toward a pipeline for further education and agency for young people of color. We take it up again in 2016.

Where do the children go after schools close?

School closings.jpgJust returning from a conference in Boston, URBAN (Urban Research-Based Action Network). There, we talked as scholars and activists from all over the country about schools closing. They close under plans that are supposed to make the closings sound benign like Renaissance, 21st century, or Millennial. However, this is anything but benign. Closing schools hurts communities and shifts students and families to new schools. We know that they do not fare well. A Chicago study showed that the students do not attend better schools and fall behind academically. A second study that looked across six cities showed that closing schools does not end up saving much money and does not produce better outcomes for kids. Coming soon will be a research project that follows the students in Baltimore into their new schools to find out not only what the academic outcomes are but what the social implications are as well.

The new reality: My new book

My new book is out The new reality for suburban schools: How suburban schools are struggling with low income students and students of color (Peter Lang, 2015).  It showcases three case studies of suburban middle schools whose demographics have changed over the last 15 years. These are schools that have largely white staffs that are unfamiliar with and have negative views of students of color, especially poor students. Given the larger context, of racism that built these suburban communities (i.e. The GI Bill, segregated housing policies, and white flight), there are larger challenges to improving this situation. However, I suggest ways that the schools can do better if they examine their own biases and start to listen to their students.


Book photo


What is the alternative to police in schools?

South carolina officerThe story of a white school police officer attacking a black student in South Carolina horrified and shocked  people when it went public. Some had no idea that there were police in schools, while others thought that this use of force was extreme. The incident involved a high school student using a cell phone in class. When she was asked to put it away, she didn’t, and the teacher asked her to leave the room, a command that the student also  refused. A school safety officer was called in and he attacked the girl when she would not get out of her chair. Since we have a video of the incident, we can see the physical attack on the student. It is a jaw-dropping assault on a black teen. There is no excuse for using this level of force on a young person who did not want to put away a cell phone.

However, despite the use of physical force, the situation actually shows weakness on the part of the teacher and the school. The teacher saw the student not obeying her rules as a signal of disrespect, and her response was to demonstrate the power of the school’s authority, and to put the student her place. This response, resorting to calling in school safety orders when students refuse to comply, demonstrates that the teacher had no relationship with the students in the classroom in the first place. Teachers resort to this behavior when they perceive they have no other alternative. By calling in the school police, the teacher admits that she has no connection with the student, that she is not interested in connecting with the student, and has no tools for connecting with students. Thus, in the end, the student will end with even less respect for the teacher than before the incident began.

What complicates this case is that it is a white police officer exerting power and authority over a young  black person. Not only is this an echo of what happens outside the school building between police and youth of color, but it is an example of the disproportionately severe discipline that black students endure in schools every day, putting them often on the school-to-prison pipeline.

The school safety officer has been fired, but that will not address the problem. The presence of school safety officers, calling them in to address “infractions” by students, and then the use of extreme force is the problem.  Schools need to reconsider how they work with students, and what their goal is with them. If the goal is to get students to understand their place in society and teach them obedience and deference to power, then the South Carolina school was doing exactly right. But, if the goal of the school is to educate the students and to prepare them for their adult lives, then students need to trust the teachers and teachers need to have relationship-building at the center of their work. If they have that as a central practice, then they will be dealing with these incidents in radically different ways. The teacher would have known and understood why the student wanted her phone out in class. They may have had some class agreements that they could refer to in a discussion. Also, the class could even engage in a restorative circle where the class discusses the incident and resolves the conflict as a class community.

Restorative practices are not new, but are an important component to how schools need to reimagine their work to improve the climate in them. The National School Climate Center suggests that schools attend to the social and emotional needs of students, and teach them the ethical and civic components of learning. They have a whole set of recommended practices and toolkits for school staffs.

Getting schools to use these practices involves a paradigm shift. A shift away from authoritarian practices in which hierarchies are adhered to and strict rules make the tiniest infraction a major event toward practices where there is structure but also care, healing, and restoration. The Dignity in Schools Campaign has worked diligently to campaign for this kind of paradigm shift and has had successes across the country, showing that there is an interest but the campaign continues because there is still resistance to making schools places that value all young people.

Continued schools closings, privatization, and what it means for cities


Yes Magazine put together this infographic on the reasons why private entities want public schools.

More news continues to emerge  across the country of budgets shrinking, neighborhood schools closing, and charter schools opening in their place. Four more schools were put on the closing list in Baltimore last week.  In Philadelphia, Chicago, Memphis, we see closings followed by the proliferation of charter schools, leading one to conclude that this is a very deliberate strategy of outsourcing public schools to private operators. The Broad Foundation’s effort to get control of Los Angeles schools is the most recent plan to address budget woes with a plan to privatize the schools.

Research has shown that these practices do not yield much success. Not only have privately operated schools not produced better outcomes for students, but the combined strategies of privatization, high stakes testing, and accountability have failed to produce better learning and better outcomes for children. Seeing these poor results, there has been resistance to market-based strategies all over the country. From Chicago’s hunger strike to save Dyett High School from closing to Philadelphia student protest against budget cuts to the Seattle teacher strike for recess and better salaries, people across the country have resisted. Meanwhile, superintendents who favored neoliberal policies are under fire. Chicago may be the best example of this with calls for mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s resignation and superintendent Barbara Byrd Bennet’s scandalous exit.

Yet, resistance has not stopped school from closing or privatization of public schools.  What will this mean for cities? What will the impact be? I argue that closing schools and privatization will just worsen conditions for poor children and will continue to underserve them. The best schools- charters or not- will continue to serve the most affluent children. Inequality will be reproduced.

It’s time to propose a plan that is an alternative to neoliberal strategies. I continue to believe that what happens in schools is very important, but we also have to turn our attention to what sociologists have long told us for a long time is the cause of poor academic outcomes, poverty. Sociologists and economists like William Julius Wilson, Richard Rothstein, Pedro Noguera, and Doug Massey have all linked poverty with poor achievement in school. Their studies can be traced back to James Comer’s ground-breaking study that linked social class to academic achievement in 1966. For more information on this see this link from the Economic Policy Institute.

There has been some policy to address poverty including Title I which emerged under the Civil Rights Act to address poverty in schools, but it has not been enough. In my local context, Baltimore, politicians, education leaders, and private developers have put more energy into fighting poverty. The biggest efforts to date have included a federal grant for social workers in schools, a renovated transportation plan, and a state-funded plan to knock down vacant housing, and a plan to develop more waterfront property. Whether these will work has to do with the answers to these questions:

  • What problem is the plan meant to solve?
  • Who will the plan benefit? Who will lose out?
  • Will the plan leave inequity in place?
  •  How will the plan change the lives of poor people?

The plans to address poverty have to benefit those in poverty. What we have learned over many years of trying is that means putting those most impacted at the table when decisions are being made. No grants or policy-making will sustain itself until they are included in decision-making.



A lesson in civics: What can we learn from the Baltimore youth sit in?

On October 14, 2015, high school and college aged students went to a hearing at City Hall in Baltimore. The goal of the hearing was to install the interim police commissioner in a permanent post in the city. City hall hearings can be long and boring, and so why did this group of young people decide to go to the meeting?

Sit in at city hall

    In April, Freddie Gray, a black man living in Baltimore, was killed by police. The protests that followed his death have awakened a new group of youth to modes of civic participation that they had not been involved in before. While there has been a long history of civic engagement and participation from youth, especially young people of color, from lunch counter sit ins to demonstrations to watchdog journalism, there is a new group of young people in Baltimore getting involved in issues of the day.

Today in Baltimore, one of the most important issue to young people, one that they are willing to risk arrest for, is the issue of policy brutality. Black communities have been the victims of police brutality in many cities, including Baltimore, over many years, but the Freddie Gray case was a turning point. Young people have formed groups at their schools and coalitions across the city, without adult leadership, to have their voices heard on police brutality.

At the October 14th hearing, they went not only to listen, but to be heard. The emotions from the spring protests are still very raw. The city and the police department have done very little to address the anger that people have over police brutality. Protests continued this fall as the pre-trial hearings for the police in the Gray case began. Again and again, young people are saying that they want reforms in the police department, to have their side of the story heard, and to see justice in police brutality cases.

Adults have failed them. The mayor, the police commissioner, city council, the governor, and the state legislature. None of them have been able to adequately address police brutality and to bring justice to consistent attacks on Baltimore’s black community. Recently, a video surfaced of a police officer spitting on a suspect. This only confirmed what young people have been saying, that the police have no respect for the black community.

So, on Thursday night, October 14th, young people went to the hearing in city hall in Baltimore to say, once again, enough is enough. They had their voices heard by occupying the meeting, and police made arrests. Sixteen of them spent the night in jail. As they did this they were engaged in critical civic praxis.  According to Ginwright and Cammarota, Critical civic praxis is focused on the civic engagement of youth, and urban youth in particular. More specifically, it is a practice in which people are “engaged with ideas, social networks, and experiences that build individual and collective capacity to struggle for social justice” (Ginwright & Cammorata, 2007, p. 693) It acknowledges “structural constraints in communities, but also views young people as active participants in changing debilitative neighborhood conditions” (p. 693). Under critical civic praxis, people “critically assess social, political, and economic structures that uphold inequality and consider collective strategies for change that challenge injustice” (Kahne & Westheimer, 2004, p. 3). Once they identify structural inequity, they may develop strategies that put pressure on elected officials to respond and undo the structures that continue inequality.

Some may view these young people as angry and without a plan. Adults usually say that about young people who protest, but these young folks do have a plan. They demand police reform including an end to the use of riot gear by police, police accountability measures, and $27 million for community schools which would provide low income communities with the services that they need to support them, like day care, healthcare, food pantries, and recreation. They cannot be easily dismissed as young people that are simply emotional; these are thoughtful demands that demonstrate that they have thought critically and are willing to engage fully in the praxis to demand justice for themselves and their communities.

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