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The School-to-Prison Pipeline Is Targeting Your Child

Resource type: News

The Advancement Project, Ebony Magazine | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

The Advancement Project’s Judith Brown Dianis on how minor infractions land Black and Latino children in major trouble

Most of us have heard the term the “school-to-prison” pipeline, but perhaps you aren’t completely clear on what it is or how it works.  A new video by the Advancement Project that uses throwback clips of classic television shows, “The Cosby Show” and “Saved By the Bell,” is meant to illustrate exactly what drives the mass incarceration of Black and Latino youth.  The video highlights the fact that kids today are more poorly behaved than in the past, but that punishment for even minor disciplinary infractions in school casts them criminals.  When Zach Morris was disciplined for using a phone in class, we didn’t see Mr. Belding calling the cops.

“It has been this way for a long time but in the 1980s, there was a shift in the discourse around young people and there was this new term used to describe them, ‘superpredator.’  Young people had been dubbed superpredators right in the middle of the crack cocaine epidemic and the height of the war on drugs,” Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, told  “The intersection of these things, were the leading cause to a crackdown on young people’s [behavior].”

“Schools then started to adopt ‘zero tolerance policies’ along with drug sniffing dogs and metal detectors. Then came the 1990s, with the Drug Free School Zones Act which requires expulsion for carrying a gun on school grounds.  Zero tolerance policies are the kind of discipline that requires a particular kind of exclusion and it is a practice of harsh discipline.”

It wasn’t always like this.  Before and during part of the 1980s, kids engaged in many of the same behaviors that are the grounds for suspension and expulsion now.  Talking on a cell phone, having a food fight in the cafeteria, lateness, dress code violations,disrupting class—-minor infractions that used to result in a trip to the principal’s office and maybe a few days of detention.  Now, these types of behaviors can result in criminal penalties, fines, and young people getting caught up in the criminal justice system with ramifications that can last a lifetime. 

“In Chicago, twenty-five young people were involved in food fight in the cafeteria and instead of being punished by having to clean up the cafeteria, they were suspended from school and arrested,” says Browne Dianis.

Behavior that isn’t usually an criminal offense becomes one thanks to zero tolerance policies that are often enforced by former police officers—who usually are not trained beyond their law enforcement backgrounds and often lack the skills to deal with young people.  Rambunctious teenage behavior gets turned into a ‘disorderly conduct’  violation complete with punishment and court fees.  Your child could be arrested for running in the hallway.

“The [education and criminal justice] systems depend on each other.  You put a young person out of school and there are other systems that benefit from that.  Instead of being about learning discipline is now about punishment.” says Browne Dianis.  Corrections officers, probation officers, and private prisons all benefit if more kids are kicked out of school and put into the criminal justice system.  These systems thrive off of more and more bodies being moved into their system via mass incarceration and the more young people who get driven into the criminal justice system, the more money many of these institutions make.”

“Black and brown students within this framework suffer the worst fate.  When a student is disciplined for “disrespect” or for rolling their eyes at an authority figure within the school, the consequences are subjectively doled out.  “Black students are more likely to be suspended for subjective things and bias could be part of it.”

The punishment does not result in better behavior, nor is it a deterrent.  Adds Brown Dianis “We know suspensions don’t work.  If you are suspended, you are more likely to fail academically and wind up in the juvenile justice system.”  According to a recent report by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California, Los Angeles Civil Rights Project, a single suspension in the ninth grade doubles the odds for a student dropping out of high school.

“It’s the overreaction from adults and sometimes it’s not even something the kid is doing to warrant such harsh discipline.  [Suspensions and expulsions] don’t fix anything because they don’t get to the root cause of behavior.”

Browne Dianis says that this system of criminalizing run of the mill youthful indiscretions has an unequal impact on Black children and results in essentially the racial profiling of Black students in American schools. 

“Black children are being pushed out and dehumanized by this system.”

Advancement Project is an Atlantic grantee. The Civil Rights Project of UCLA is an Atlantic grantee via a re-grant from the NAACP Legal Defense Educational Fund