Until fairly recently, mass incarceration was a fringe subject that no one gave two hoots about. Nowadays every vote grubbing statesman, media rent-a-quote and dinner party bore has an opinion on reforming the American criminal justice system. Yet in all of this brouhaha about the subject matter, you don't hear much about the school-to-prison pipeline and its links to mass incarceration. Little wonder. Institutional racism is a depressing, and reoccurring, subject in modern western society. But, in the right here and now of the problem, how do we, as parents, teachers, advocates and citizens, dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline?
The school-to-prison pipeline is the policy of excluding kids from education and referring them to the juvenile and criminal justice system. And it's a problem, like mass incarceration, that is very much in the public domain already. Not a week goes by without a story in the press about it. The 7-year old in Maryland, suspended for shaping his Pop-Tart into a gun; the senior in Michigan expelled for forgetting the lock knife in her schoolbag, the teenagers in North Carolina, charged with "disorderly conduct" for an end of year water balloon fight; police officers Tasering and beating on students for "acting out"; unruly and corrupt "school resource officers" (security guards), roughing up and shaking down pupils.
First and foremost, racism is the dominant, and undeniable, theme at play in the school-to-prison pipeline. This is down to the fact, the absolute fact, that this byproduct of zero tolerance education affects African-American schoolchildren more than any other pupil demographic. Some commentators, and educationalists, have put forward the case for segregated classrooms to safeguard minorities, and prevent instances of racially motivated mass exclusion. The argument is simple: teachers of color would be less inclined to fail pupils of color. Noble, but flawed. We don't practice segregation in a multicultural society, and, moreover, we should not adopt it as a policy to educate our children in a multicultural society. Children benefit from diversity at school. So does society at large.
Another malfunctioning part in the pipeline: our paper tiger teachers. Over worked. Stressed out. Underpaid. Undervalued. The lot of a teacher in the public sector has never been a happy one. And, speaking as someone who was once punched in the square root of the face by a Math teacher, this is something that I know about first hand. However, back then, thirty years ago, teaching was still seen as a rewarding profession for the middling classes to go into. Not any more. If you want to make dough in the 21st century, you don't don a mortarboard to become Mr. Chips; you graduate to become a property developer, social media entrepreneur, or reality TV star. The solution is simple. Education is due a New Deal. And fresh graduates going into teaching need to be paid a living wage, one that is commensurate with inflation.
That's not the end of it for the teacher. The world is changing all the time and teachers need training to handle unruly students with a variety of behavioral disorders and physical disabilities. Some, like that old Math teacher from Holland Park School in London, lack the deescalating techniques to control a classroom of foul mouthed adolescents, and soon lose confidence in their own ability to communicate the subject matter. One idea being touted round to restore discipline in the classroom is to recruit former soldiers as teachers. This is the kind of solution that works in entertaining B-movies like "The Substitute," (and its innumerable sequels on Netflix) but not so much in real life. We need Mr. Chips like figures, not two-fisted mercenaries (unless they are fully qualified).
Even still, teachers complain about striking the balance between lofty educational ideals and maintaining order. How do you restore power and authority to the teacher in the modern school setting without the presence of cops and security guards? One outlandish suggestion is to revive the administration of corporal punishment and make school just like it was in "the good old days". Caning was popular in English schools until it was banned in the mid 1970s (its practice in the fee paying private sector, however, lasted well into the 1980s). Fear and the threat of "six of the best" from a teacher, usually a stern faced priest, always brought about immediate discipline, not to mention disfigurement and lasting emotional damage. Maybe it's not such a good restorative practice.
So, how do we dismantle the ticking bomb of the school-to-prison pipeline? By recognizing its component parts and diffusing it long before it goes off. The social cost, and collateral damage, in real terms, in the long run, is far too high for a modern western society. Still, at least it gives the bourgeois talking heads and crashing bores of this world something to talk about on Sunday afternoons round the grill. Suffer the little children, when will we stupid adults learn to do something about it? Like mass incarceration, we only ever do something when it's far too late to do anything. It's the tragedy of another lesson unlearned for the adult world.