Commentary: Let’s Resolve to Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Too many children are being railroaded into a dead-end future because of punitive treatment in schools.

Posted: 01/14/2014 01:01 PM EST

The Departments of Justice and Education recently put a serious kink in the school-to-prison pipeline by outlining types of discipline practices that could be racially discriminatory. This historic step makes clear that no longer will school districts, educators and police be permitted to engage in racial profiling of our children in classrooms and school hallways. Whether its public schools, charters or alternative schools, today too many children of color are being railroaded into a dead-end future because of punitive treatment in schools.

As parents, we want our children to dream big. Yet in many school districts across the country those dreams are cut short by harsh school discipline. Instead of teaching better behaviors and using common sense discipline, children are suspended, even arrested, for offenses as trivial as being late to class, violating a dress code, or bringing a cellphone to school. In many schools Black children are thrown out of class based on teacher or administrator discretion; they are told they are insubordinate, disrespectful or defiant. They are sent home losing days of learning. Yet suspending and arresting them does nothing to change behavior, but instead makes them more likely to fail academically and wind up in the juvenile justice system. 

Further, in some schools the same racial bias that makes a person clutch their pocketbook or move to the other side of the street when a young Black male is approaching leads to a suspension or arrest in school when an adult feels threatened by the look, size or clothing of their students. Across the country, Black and Latino youth are most likely to experience harsh discipline practices that lead them on the road to mass incarceration early in life. However, youth and parents across the country are increasingly rising up to change practices that criminalize students, ensuring that they are routed instead toward college and careers.

The past year alone saw an encouraging uptick of efforts to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline from the ground up. Advancement Project worked alongside dedicated community partners in Denver, Buffalo, New York, and Broward County, Florida, to make this change a reality.

For example, the Denver organization Padres y Jovenes Unidos helped facilitate a historic agreement to significantly limit the role of police in schools. In Buffalo, Citizen Action New York and the Alliance for Quality Education led a successful campaign for a new policy that ends suspensions for minor misbehaviors and requires schools to use alternative interventions. A new code of conduct in Florida’s Broward County, passed with the help of groups including the Fort Lauderdale/Broward Branch of the NAACP, stops the over-criminalization of youth by offering students counseling and assistance aimed to address the root of behavioral problems.

In 2014, we need to continue this fight so that all of our children will have an opportunity to learn in nurturing environments that put them on a path to success. Community power can make this happen.

Judith Browne Dianis is the co- director of Advancement Project.

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