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The School-to-Prison Pipeline

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Rethinking Schools is a magazine written for teachers by teachers. It is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and covers local issues, but really its concerns are national in scope. Its Winter 2011-2012 issue was a special on what they call "the school-to-prison pipeline." An opening editorial made clear their point of view. Too often schools where student populations are overwhelming black, Latino and poor are becoming "pathways to incarceration rather than opportunity." As teachers they are outraged because "we cannot build safe, creative, nurturing schools and criminalize our children at the same time."

According to Rethinking Schools, "zero tolerance" disciplinary policies in schools are responsible for transforming minor transgressions of school rules that could be handled as educational opportunities into disciplinary matters where students are subject to suspension and often even into legal issues involving the police and courts. The editors of Rethinking Schools blame federal "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top" programs that focus what takes place in schools on control and test scores rather than meeting student needs for accelerating the trend toward increasing severe punishment.

Punishment in school and in American society often has a racial dimension. The United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of Apartheid. In Washington, D.C., three-fourths of the young African American men are arrested at some point in their lives. Since 1970, the U.S. prison population has grown from about 300,000 people to over two million, even while crime rates have dropped. More than seven million children have a family member who has passed through the prison system.

The connection between prisons and schools dates to the Reagan and Clinton administrations. The term "zero tolerance" came into popular usage during the Reagan presidency when Congress passed the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. During the Clinton years, the Safe and Gun-Free Schools Act mandated expulsion for any student, no matter how young, who brought a gun to school. Public fear of school violence was ignited by the Columbine shootings in 1999. Although the perpetrators were white and the incident had nothing to do with race, black and Latino students in inner-city schools increasingly became the target of the anti-crime, anti-violence programs.

State policies, not the students, are often the actual criminals. According to a 2011 study "Breaking Schools' Rules," in Texas, with a school population of 4.7 million students, there were 1.6 million student suspensions during the 2009-2010 school year. Fifty-four percent of the students in Texas were suspended or expelled at least once while in secondary school. Overwhelmingly, 97 percent of the suspensions were for minor infractions that could have been treated as educational rather than disciplinary problems.

A major focus of the Rethinking Schools theme issue was discussion of a book by Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness. In an interview with a Rethinking Schools editor, Alexander, a legal school and civil rights activist who is also African American, explained that the explosion in the prison population and increasingly harsh punishment in schools has had a devastating impact on black children and the black community. Families are separated, lives are uncertain, older siblings are stopped and frisked by police, and children experience harassment starting at a young age and become resentful of authority figures, whether they are teachers or police officers.

Alexander believes school discipline policies were shaped by the war on drugs and the "get tough" movement. She charges that zero tolerance language in school disciplinary codes was taken from a Drug Enforcement Administration manual. She feels that students, parents and teachers need to resist these policies and promote programs that will actually improve the quality of education and community life. "We're foolish if we think we're going to end mass incarceration unless we are willing to deal with the reality that huge percentages of poor people are going to remain jobless, locked out of the mainstream economy, unless and until they have a quality education that prepares them well for the new economy."

Courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have ruled on student rights on a number of occasions. The best-known case is Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). In this case, the United States Supreme Court decided that students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." However in Ginsberg v. New York (1968) the Supreme Court recognized that states must exercise greater authority over children than over adults, partly because they are responsible for ensuring an environment that is safe and conducive to learning.

In Safford Unified School District v. Redding (2009), Associate Justice Clarence Thomas argued:

"For nearly 25 years this Court has understood that maintaining order in the classroom has never been easy, but in more recent years, school disorder has often taken particularly ugly forms: drug use and violent crime in the schools have become major social problems... For this reason, school officials retain broad authority to protect students and preserve order and a proper educational environment under the Fourth Amendment. This authority requires that school officials be able to engage in the close supervision of school children, as well as enforce rules against conduct that would be perfectly permissible if undertaken by an adult."

Unfortunately, if Thomas' views become the law of the land, and they well might in a country that has already suspended fourth amendment due process rights for people accused of ties to terrorism, students may effectively lose all legal protection against abusive authority. Schools will become more like prisons and young people will be one step closer to incarceration.