THE BLOG

Teaching in Prison's Shadow

04/24/2013 12:53 pm ET | Updated Jun 24, 2013
Getty Images

Not long ago a New Haven, Conn., high school with a predominantly African-American student body had an annex for students with chronic absences and those labeled as having behavioral issues. The annex was located in the New Haven Armory, which was a functioning military armory used to store vehicles, weapons and live ammunition. From this location students would look out a window and have a close-up view of the jail and juvenile court next door. Sometimes they would see friends or neighbors there. Students and teachers alike hated the school's location and the stigma they felt because of it. In 2006 the New Haven School District conceded to youth demands to relocate the school.

Working in the Bronx, as she writes in the Suspensions Stories blog, E.E.M. is a history teacher who helped develop a "Moot Court" project that has become one of the seminal academic experiences of upperclassmen at her school. Student teams research real First and Fourth Amendment Supreme Court cases and then develop arguments and present in front of guest "justices." Each year students are highly engaged in this project, and one year four of them, a crew of friends who had known each other since childhood, were working hard to prepare for their presentation. But just weeks before the case presentations, three of the young men were involved in an altercation (involving many people from multiple schools in the building) that was the result of an out-of-school turf tension related to the two sets of housing projects near the school. The three young men were given a 60-day out-of-school suspension. The effect? The students never got to stand tall and present their cases in front of peers and impressed guests. Instead, one student transferred to a school that didn't match his needs or interests, another moved out of state, one returned to the school with little trust for faculty, and the fourth, who wasn't involved in the fights, grew listless after the destruction of what had been a positive and supportive team for him: his friends. What could have been for these young men had the school system intervened earlier and responded differently? For E.E.M. and her colleagues, stories like these are common, and they are heartbreaking. Educators see so much promise in their students, but what is their fate when time and again they are demoralized and alienated by schools without adequate and supportive resources?

"School-to-prison pipeline" is a phrase that describes a set of policies and practices that push young people out of public schools and into the criminal justice system. It is a kind of shorthand that activists use to refer to the places where schools are linked to the merciless tendrils of the U.S. prison system. For most attending and working at urban schools serving black and Latino communities, the federal call for "teacher effectiveness" couldn't be a bigger distraction from what's really going on.

The teachers I know are an extraordinary bunch, and I'm not talking about their teaching skills (although they are outstanding pedagogues). The teacher members I work with at Teachers Unite are politicized: They understand how oppression plays out in the communities they work in, and they seek ways to undo the injustices that low-income people are facing. I've heard a couple of teachers voice concern that the term "school-to-prison pipeline" contributes to the rhetoric that blames teachers for the failures of the public education system. They argue that structural racism and an unjust economic system need to be looked at to understand why schools rarely help kids get out of poverty. They might be more amenable to the term "cradle-to-prison pipeline," a term coined by Marian Wright Edelman that attempts to describe the countless forces lined up against people of color living in poverty in this country.

I understand their concern, but I would argue that "school-to-prison pipeline" is a term that draws attention to young people's awareness about what they're facing. "Exploitation of working-class people" and "the legacy of African slavery" aren't catchy phrases. They fail to conjure up a clear picture of what young people face literally every day. The title of Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow is used as a phrase that concisely describes a complex and inhumane institution. The mass incarceration of African Americans is a reality grown from centuries of oppression, but "the new Jim Crow" doesn't focus on how education policies and practices make their specific contribution to this crisis.

A lone educator might not be able to prevent her black or Latino students' almost inevitable encounter with the criminal justice system, but an organization or union of teachers can help educators learn restorative practices and advocate for a transformative vision of school safety, one that promotes human rights, student leadership, inclusion and community responsibility. The best way that teachers can guard against teacher bashing is by lending their collective power to the life-and-death battles being waged by communities across the country.

Our members, like E.E.M., are partners to youth in the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a coalition advocating for alternatives to the punitive and policing culture that exists in public schools. The campaign is led by people most affected by school pushout and zero-tolerance discipline: youth who have been suspended, expelled, pushed out or criminalized. If those young people want to use the terms "school-to-prison pipeline," "the new Jim Crow," "mass incarceration," "racist police brutality," "prison-industrial complex" or any other "aka," then the role of an ally is to learn the language and stand with students in the fight.