Ask An Expert: Disrupting the School-to-Prison Cycle

Question: Dr. Lynch, I am a youth counselor in Philadelphia, PA. Everyday I witness the public school system fail our children. The end result is that many of them drop out and end up in prison. What can activists like myself do to end the school to prison pipeline? Nate T.

Answer: Nate, thank you for sending this question my way. Though all people are genetically predisposed, it is ultimately the environment that encompasses the formative years that shapes lives. Some of that comes from home environments, and the rest from society. Our nation’s public schools play an integral role in fostering talents, but also in building our children’s internal worth.

When one student is causing a classroom disruption, the traditional way to address the issue has been removal – whether the removal is for five minutes, five days or permanently. Separating the “good” students and the “bad” ones has always seemed the fair, judicious approach. On an individual level this form of discipline may seem necessary to preserve the educational experience for others. If all children came from homes that implemented a cause-and-effect approach to discipline, this might be the right answer. Unfortunately, an increasing number of students come from broken homes, or ones where parents have not the desire or time to discipline. For these students, removal from education is simply another form of abandonment and leads to the phenomenon called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Children are just as much a product of their environments as the expectations placed on them. Parents on a first-name basis with law enforcement officials certainly influence the behavior of their children, but school authorities with preconceived negative associations create an expectation of failure too. Increasingly, educators are learning how to recognize the signs of textbook learning disabilities like ADHD or dyslexia. But what about the indirect impact that factors like poverty, abuse, neglect or simply living in the wrong neighborhood have on a student’s ability to learn? Where are the intervention programs that keep these students on academic track without removing them from the school setting?

The term “zero tolerance” may sound like the best way to handle all offenses in public schools, but it really does a disservice to students. Not every infraction is a black and white issue and not every misstep by a student is a result of direct defiance. Often students with legitimate learning disabilities or social impairment are labeled as “disruptions” and removed from classroom settings under the guise of preserving the learning experience for other, “better” students. I suppose there is an argument to be made for protecting straight-and-narrow students from the sins of others, but at what cost? Schools are the first line of defense against this early form of pigeonholing, but the community needs to embrace the concept. Students with discipline problems are individuals that need customized learning experiences to succeed academically, in the years ahead.

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