Precinct 333

Saturday, January 15, 2005

School-To-Prison Pipeline?

I don't fisk an article often, but I think I will do this one from the Houston Chronicle.

Increasingly, discipline in our public schools is handled by police officers and the court system rather than educators. Our judges are trained to address criminal behavior, not adolescent misconduct. In Houston, judges complain — rightly — that the Houston Independent School District uses the courts to discipline students for minor school infractions. In HISD, the most common reason for more than 50 percent of the referrals to Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs are for persistent misbehavior, which falls under the vague category of forgetting school assignments, loitering in the halls, truancy and disrespect. Studies show that these students are being prepped for prison by the very same system charged with educating them.

Yeah, there is a lot of discipline handled by police and courts. But is that the fault of the schools? Have they been so stripped of authority that farming out that discipline is the only availble means for dealing with the worst offenses. And when the lower level of discipline isn't effective, it might just be that the legal system is the only thing available to teachers and administrators. Which is not to support HISD, which everyone knows is a mess. But I know we have cops on campus issuing citations in my school, which borders on HISD. I don't know that I would stay if we did not. I teach at a school that includes some rough neighborhoods. Just this week we had a kid taken away in an ambulance to get stitchesafter he got his head gahsed open on a locker door during a fight. Both he and the other student in the fight will be visiting a judge in the next few weeks.

The institutional links between school failure and prison are out-of-school suspensions, juvenile detentions, outplacement in separate special education and alternative educational programs.

The high recidivism rate for these young people suggests that schools are giving up on students and not working to help them reform.

But is the school the cause of these problems, or are they simply the setting in which they play out? Two years ago, one of my students hit a kid with a baseball bat in the parking lot after school so he could steal the other boy's new Jordans. Did the school fail my student, or did he arrive already prepped for crime. Is it a culture of drugs and violence that makes these kids criminal, or the fact that we punish them for not being in class on time or for cussing out a teacher?

Also, is it the school's place to reform these students? We're supposed to teach them academic subjects. We've had the task of feeding them two meals a day handed to us. I'm supposed to be looking out for signs of abuse, drug use, and a variety of other social and physical ills. Do you really want to extend the "character education" mandate to include dealing with criminal behavior?

Millions of at-risk third-graders are left stranded and behind, and used as the source to predict the number of future jail cells needed. California schools are a prime example of this disturbing trend and appears to be setting a benchmark for most states. (Unfortunately, Texas ranks second to California in incarcerating youths.) Nationally, at-risk students often receive inadequate academic and counseling support in alternative educational pathways.

The widespread failure of our public schools to meet the needs of our youths leaves them stripped of hope and dignity, academically unprepared to return to a regular educational program and more susceptible to criminal behavior.

So what is your solution to the plight of these third-graders who cannot read at grade level or do basic math? More social promotion? Putting them in a classroom setting where they are not equipped to handle the work? More special programs pulling money away from the "good kids" who do their work, try to learn, and follow the rules? Back when I taught English, I was always struck by the reaction of my kids to Phyllis McGinley's "Lament of the Normal Child", because it so succinctly encapsulates the problem we have in ignoring the needs of the "normal students" in favor of the "troubled students". I'm afraid that we face the exact situation here -- shortchanging the kids who do what is expected in favor of those who don't. When are we to look after their needs in a classroom in which we are supposed to pay attention to the "speial needs" of mainstreamed and at-risk students? Do you propose that we allow one or two disruptive kids to prevent the other 25 from learning? Or should we get rid of four or five core curriculum teacher slots at my campus so we can set up a special program just for those students who refuse to conform to basic standards of behavior?

Minority students are hardest hit. In Texas, for example, African-American and Hispanic students are in the minority, but they represent the majority in Disciplinary Alternative Education Programs and Juvenile Justice Alternative Education programs. Shockingly, many of these minority children are placed in alternative educational programs for nonviolent and minor school offenses like dress codes, tardiness and truancy. In a society saturated with at-risk youths, we must invest in their education to prevent juvenile delinquency. As has been often said, it is cheaper to educate than to incarcerate.

Now hold on just a minute. Why are they the majority? Could it be because they commit the majority of the offenses? And why are they placed in the alternative programs? Could it be because they comit these infractions repeatedly? Dare I point out that there are major problems in the African-American and Hispanic communities in this country that contribute to the problem. Working hard, doing well, and getting a good education is "acting white."

So is following the rules. I can't tell you the number of times kids have trotted out the accusation that I'm hassling them "because I'm black" or "because I'm Mexican" if I ask them for a pass if they are in the hall, ask why they aren't wearing their ID, or tell them to pull up their pants and tuck their shirt in as required by the dress code. Some are insubordinate and insolently refuse to comply. Those kids get written up. Now who is the bad guy, Ms. Campbell -- me or the kid?

I teach 10th graders. As of Friday, after nine days of school (that's total 36 class periods on a block schedule), I have one student student with no fewer than SIX tardies. I've got several who have not yet deigned to grace us with their presence? This is the school's fault? Is it your position that there should be no consequences? I won't get into the question of what you can do to a kid who fails to appear for detention. Your only solution at that point is a suspension or an alternative program -- or to ignore the infraction altogether, which means there is no consequence to misbehavior.

"Setting High Standards" and "Leave No Child Behind" are just empty slogans to students who are deprived of an education. Last October, The New York Times exposed the negative impact of alternative educational programs in an article titled," Get Tough Youth Programs are Ineffective." This article highlighted a study by the National Institutes of Health, which included a 13-member panel on youth violence and ways to prevent it. The panel concluded that negative peer pressure is the No. 1 issue with boot camps and other punishment-focused programs. Other systematic problems cited against alternative educational programs were: inadequate counseling for youth and their families; and ineffective adult lecturing programs such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE).

And negative peer-pressure is also the number one problem they run into in their communities. I've already pointed that out. Gangsta rap and narco-corridas have more influence than teachers do in these students' lives. Schools are a counter-cultural force in many communities, and that means that there are times we are going to have to exclude parts of that culture. Gang-bangers aren't welcome. Kids who get up and call me a mother f*cker in class are not welcome. Taking away the option of excluding these kids will not improve education, it will only render me more powerless and them more powerful. Eventually, if you continue to take away our power to exclude such kids, I and many of my colleagues will quit. As far as the bootcamps and other punishment-based programs are concerned, I don't care if the programs are effective in changing the behavior of the disruptive 5-10% -- they need to be out of the classroom for the sake of the rest of the kids..

To disconnect the school-to-prison pipeline trend, The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund teamed up to host a daylong discussion called "Building Capacity For State-Level Advocates to Address the School to Prison Pipeline." I participated in this roundtable, along with fellow Texans and others from North Carolina, Mississippi and Massachusetts. As a parent on the frontline fighting for my children and others, I shared a parent's sense of helplessness and frustration. When confronting the educational bureaucracy and its high-powered attorneys (paid for by taxpayers), defenseless parents are intimidated. That is why it is urgent to create parental empowerment, which will lead to more parental involvement.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the educational system is the conficting message sent about parental involvement. By using governmental immunity to defend wrongdoing, and labeling parents who speak out as troublemakers, school officials deter parental involvement. At the same time, they cite the lack of parental involvement as an excuse for students' poor performance. These organized tactics demean, undermine parents and cause some of them to question their parenting skills.

On the other hand, I can't tell you how many times I've had to deal with parents who come into a meeting with the express intent of cursing me. Too many parents insist that their child certainly couldn't possibly be guilty of misbehaving. I've been present as parents have insisted that they have the right to exempt their child from a detention (or even a suspension) if they don't think it is deserved -- and I've seen building and district administrators comply! We actually had one parent attempt to get a court to forbid one of our assistant principals being involved in any disciplinary actions agains a student because the man was white and therefore obviously a racist. And I won't get into the issue of parents who appear on the school doorstep with so-called "civil rights leaders" or television reporters in tow before they have even contacted the school about their problem. I don't want those parents involved. Frankly, Ms. Campbel, I think you are one of them, the type who has a deep hostility to the schools you attend and their personnel, and who believes that anyone who dares to tell you "No" is automatically acting in bad faith.

The parental involvement barriers I experienced as a parent and as an advocate in Fort Bend Independent School District gave me a deeper understanding of the extent to which a school district will go to deter parental involvement. These experiences allowed me to share the following lessons that I had learned out of necessity. Parents can advocate for their children by: getting organized; serving on the school district's board and committees; obtaining parental advocacy training; enlisting the support of other parents; making the media and public officials aware; and speaking out about the need for high expectations for every child.

We would love for you to do the constructive things on that list. Unfortunately, you've just spent an entire column complaining because the district has tried to set high expectations for every child, and has used the means available to enforce them. I've yet to see a single proposal regarding what you would do to solve the problems the school faces. I suspect that the end result will be more restrictions on what the school can do to deal with the problem students, and no improvement in the actual conduct of the students themnselves.

Each roundtable participant presented compelling evidence of the school-to-prison pipeline. A group of state leaders, led by Rep. Dora Olivo, D-Missouri City, has planned a summit on Jan. 28 to address legislation and policies that better promote safe schools and lead to a more equitable and effective student disciplinary system.

In learning more about this subject, I was particularly moved by a documentary called System Failure-Violence, Abuse, and Neglect in the California Youth Authority. In this video presentation, young victims and their parents share their horrifying experiences. The documentary confirms my theory that the most effective way to bring about alternative educational reform is through a state/federal report card, including participants' evaluations.

Think about it: If providers of the alternative educational pathways are held accountable, they would be forced to positively change the way they do business — in order to stay in business.

Ah, there we have it. This whole column is about creating another set of "victims" of "the system." Maybe the better way is to simply abolish public education as we know it and give the funds to parents as vouchers. Those students interested in learning can go to schools where they don't feel threatened. Teachers can teach in schools where they have some authority.

And you can set up your own program for the delinquents, and figure out what to do with them. The only problem I see is that you wouldn't have an enemy (especially not an implicitly racist white enemy) to blame for the problem. You would only have yourself and your community.


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