Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline


by: Staff, Rethinking Schools | News Analysis

Students take a break between class at Locke High School, in Los Angeles, May 14, 2010. (Photo: Michal Czerwonka / The New York Times)

“Every man in my family has been locked up. Most days I feel like it doesn’t matter what I do, how hard I try – that’s my fate, too.”
-11th-grade African American student, Berkeley, California

This young man isn’t being cynical or melodramatic; he’s articulating a terrifying reality for many of the children and youth sitting in our classrooms—a reality that is often invisible or misunderstood. Some have seen the growing numbers of security guards and police in our schools as unfortunate but necessary responses to the behavior of children from poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods. But what if something more ominous is happening? What if many of our students—particularly our African American, Latina/o, Native American, and Southeast Asian children—are being channeled toward prison and a lifetime of second-class status?

We believe that this is the case, and there is ample evidence to support that claim. What has come to be called the “school-to-prison pipeline” is turning too many schools into pathways to incarceration rather than opportunity. This trend has extraordinary implications for teachers and education activists. It affects everything from what we teach to how we build community in our classrooms, how we deal with conflicts with and among our students, how we build coalitions, and what demands we see as central to the fight for social justice education.

What Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

The school-to-prison pipeline begins in deep social and economic inequalities, and has taken root in the historic shortcomings of schooling in this country. The civil and human rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s spurred an effort to “rethink schools” to make them responsive to the needs of all students, their families, and communities. This rethinking included collaborative learning environments, multicultural curriculum, student-centered, experiential pedagogy—we were aiming for education as liberation. The back-to-basics backlash against that struggle has been more rigid enforcement of ever more alienating curriculum.

The “zero tolerance” policies that today are the most extreme form of this punishment paradigm were originally written for the war on drugs in the early 1980s, and later applied to schools. As Annette Fuentes explains, the resulting extraordinary rates of suspension and expulsion are linked nationally to increasing police presence, checkpoints, and surveillance inside schools.

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