School-to-prison pipeline' must end

Posted: Thursday, January 28, 2010

We need to stop militarizing our schools.

Across the country, school administrators are making cops and metal detectors as much a part of the school day as teachers and textbooks. So-called zero-tolerance disciplinary policies are transforming the campus into hostile territory, alienating communities and pushing vulnerable students to give up on their education.

The coercive climate extends beyond school grounds.

To children in poor communities of color, the school day is too often an extension of the crisis engulfing their neighborhoods, where violence, police abuse, drugs and joblessness loom over their streets and homes.

Labeled and punished as troublemakers or delinquents, vulnerable children are frequently funneled into a pattern that activists call the "school-to-prison pipeline." Expulsion rates suggest that schools are dealing with "problem" students by simply erasing them. Nationwide, about 3.3 million students were suspended from school in 2006 alone.

It's no coincidence that the most marginalized students reflect the demographics of the prison population. According to data collected by the federal Office of Civil Rights, black students are almost three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended and expelled from school. Similarly, blacks make up a disproportionate share of juvenile arrests.

In many cases, a school fight or conflict with a teacher is enough to upend a child's education. A 2005 investigation by the civil rights organization Advancement Project concluded that race was a key determinant in the disparities, "with students of color receiving harsher punishments for less severe behavior." The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Jan. 20, accusing the city Police Department's School Safety Division - which has deployed several thousand special security personnel to patrol students - of promoting the unlawful arrest and abuse of children. In one incident, according to the suit, a teenager was detained and beaten after he was spotted using a cell phone in school.

The constant threat of arbitrary and discriminatory discipline breeds an oppressive atmosphere that stifles students' self-expression and leaves little room for intellectual exploration. When future prospects are limited to languishing in broken schools, or plunging into a low-skill, low-wage job market, the criminal justice system becomes a repository for kids that other institutions have already written off as hopeless.

And so police replace teachers as school authorities, and children are steered off the college path and toward jail.

But some communities are trying to defuse the self-fulfilling prophecy of criminalizing children. A coalition of civil rights and community groups has launched Dignity in Schools, a national campaign to "end the harsh disciplinary policies that push young people out of school, and to adopt positive alternatives that protect students' human rights to education and dignity." Education with dignity isn't a radical principle. It recognizes the school as a community, and education as a human right, not just a mechanized cycle of tests and punishment.

Instead of spending public money to handcuff children, lawmakers should provide supportive counseling, mental health treatment, and positive development programs for our troubled kids.

Last year, budget cuts sapped the political will for progressive school reform in many struggling communities. But new grant money from Washington could bring some relief.

The Dignity in Schools coalition hopes schools will draw funds from the Obama administration's Race to the Top initiative to support progressive, child-centered behavioral health programs.

Public education could use some investment in common sense: Even in the toughest neighborhoods, where young people face closed doors at every turn, school should be the one place where a kid feels welcome.

• Michelle Chen is a writer for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine.

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