School to Prison Pipeline: The Play, The Reality, and The Momentum to Destroy It
This past Saturday evening was a beautiful and organic moment that showed the momentum that this city has established for making the necessary changes to our communities and school district. The Breaking The School to Prison Pipeline play debuted that night at Franklin High School’s considerably large auditorium. Hundreds of people including community figures, organizations, parents, and the general public attended this display of edutainment. The play explored the realities of many students, particularly children of color, who struggle to find relevance and respect for educators and an education system that doesn’t address their socio-economic and cultural needs, while simultaneously criminalizing their behavior. The children who acted in the play (ranging from 5th graders to 12th graders) were nothing short of charismatic, talented, and downright professional. I cant help but wonder what would have happened with many of these super talented children if Robert Ricks and the organization Men Inspiring Boys and Girls (MIB) hadn’t been there to cultivate the talents and self-identity required for the talents of these kids. Would they have been making there way through this school to prison pipeline which many educators still don’t understand exists?
The school-to-prison pipeline is as real as the air you breathe, and can be just as abstract a concept. Whether we want to give our educational systems the benefit of the doubt and say it incidentally exists, or argue that it is a conspiracy against children of color, the school to prison pipeline is a series of systems and practices (or lack thereof) in place that disproportionately navigate black and brown students into the criminal justice system. In case the visualization of “pipe-lining” children into prison seems too quick to be a practical reality, I often tend to compare the process to a cash crop industry that involves that fertilization, cultivation, blossoming, and harvesting of children of color into the prison industrial complex:
The aesthetics and context that a child is routinely exposed to often shapes what they may perceive as inevitable in his or her life down the road. With that being said, consider what is established in a student’s mind when entry into his or her school is reminiscent of entering a correctional facility when they are scanned and their bags are scanned. Consider what is established in a student’s mind when he or she walks through drab halls and eats monotonous, bland, or downright disgusting cafeteria food. Consider what is established in a student’s mind when they see a police officer or two permanently in their building (in our district they are called School Resource Officers). A common experience for many students in our school district (me included), is dealing with the coughing and sneezing after an officer got too trigger-happy with the pepper spray after trying to stop a fight. Nothing about your educational experience should parallel an experience in a prison entry, hallway, mess hall and/or prison yard. I just named five.
The fertilization process also involves things that aren’t happening that should be. A lack of culturally, locally, or socio-economically responsive curricula and school programming also provides fertile ground from which students can much more quickly mold their personal identities based on their punishments and wrongdoings. If these curricula were there, students would get ample opportunity to find identity in being productive ambassadors and improvers of self, family, community, world, and ethnic group. These identities are needed in a troubled city like Rochester. Robert Ricks and MIB do this responsive work and in turn cultivate healthy student identity and a play. Our district as a whole isn’t doing this responsive work, which allows for the cultivation of something else.
Once the environment has been fertilized, in-school practices and in-district practices does its work to affirm what the students are seeing and aren’t seeing, further shaping negative norms and identities. In other words, in addition to the environment looking and feeling like a prison, systems and practices further stigmatize, marginalize, and isolate black and brown babies at disproportionate levels. For example, implicit bias on behalf of majority white teachers (along with some mis-educated black and brown teachers) towards majority black and Latino students. This implicit bias, which could have been prevented through teaching culturally responsive curricula, has caused a disconnection and prejudice that has led to disproportionate consequences, suspensions, and labeling for children of color. You can call me the angry black guy for saying this, but then you would have to argue with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education who have concluded these findings as well. Due to this interesting circumstance of educational apartheid, normal social behaviors of children of color are often labeled as misbehaviors, misbehaviors are often prompted by teacher/administration insensitivity to cultural needs and identity, and misbehaviors are often addressed with inequitable consequences. This causes too many trips to the ISS (in school suspensions) rooms, which in our district have a functionality too comparable to holding cells. This also causes too many out of school suspensions, whose hearings are strikingly similar to real judicial hearings. Furthermore, through misidentifying behaviors and not identifying ineffective practices, students of color are disproportionately represented in the Special Education system. The overall result? Patternized perceptions of poor student ability, patternized misbehaviors, and patternized consequences are now affirming and cementing negative perceptions and identities encouraged through the fertilization process.
This process is quite simple, but extremely condemning. This is the moment in which a student’s disillusion with what the education system can do for them reaches full bloom. A disillusion largely fueled by the cultivation and fertilization processes that were previously mentioned. They have tried enough, failed enough and been suspended enough. They’ve been labeled enough, stigmatized enough, and marginalized enough by a system that has left some deeper needs unmet. With this mentality fully blossomed, they make the choice to no longer come to school. They drop out. Little do they know, it was the fertilization and cultivation processes that pushed them out. They know bear the fruits of low self-esteem, low ambition, low literacy, and low capabilities.
There is now a disillusioned student with no diploma and little to no education that would show an attempt to get one. His or her experience as a student of color has polluted their perception of education and perception of self, thus limiting the perception of options. The streets, drugs, and crime ultimately become options for survival and coping. The streets and crime ultimately lead to patternized trips to jail and patternized trips to prison along with the other under-educated, under-valued, and mis-understood people of color who are now disproportionately represented in the prison population (check the stats on jail recidivism and demographics). Long and short of it, their experiences through their education made them ripe enough to be harvested by the prison industrial complex, thus incrementally pipelining them from their experience in education to an experience of incarceration. Ultimately, the harvest experience parallels the fertilization and cultivation experiences, which makes the transition from school to prison way less radical that it should be. Who would have thought that schooling could function as an intense scrimmage that acclimates a child to the criminal justice system?
Robert Ricks, MIB, and many other community stakeholders overstand the reality of the School to Prison Pipeline, and are working diligently to foster a process of fertilizing, cultivating, blossoming, and harvesting that yields positive results. Some people still may be asking themselves “how come it’s called the school to prison pipeline when community and family issues encourage dropout and incarceration problems as well?” I would argue that it is because as a public institution, it is our job to be the last line of positive defense for our kids, not enabling and empowering societal functions that encourage incarceration the way we currently are doing. More importantly, school shouldn’t be separated from community nor family. Schools are as accountable for success or failure as any other community entity that breaks or encourages the pipe-lining of kids to prison. We used to know that. Im glad plays like Breaking the School to Prison Pipeline are reminding us, and telling us to get our behinds in gear!
Click here for Time Warner Cable News coverage on the play.
Click here for an official report on the school to prison pipeline in Rochester, NY.
Click here for information on national work that is dismantling the school to prison pipeline created by the Children’s Defense Fund.