Cracking the School-to-Prison Pipeline
By Anthony Asadullah Samad
There has been another raging discussion taking place over the past couple months, that of the school-to-prison pipeline. How many different ways can we say that the absence of investment in America's intellectual capital causes - even promotes - devastating social consequences? And how many different ways can we assess the racial consequences of misapplied forms of social control? No, there are no more "whites only" or "colored only" signs, which causes society to suggest that we are a more racially homogenous society. Yes, we do come together on some levels today. But the most common way in which we come together is on anti-intellectual levels.
If it's dumb, stupid, ill-informed, not well thought out in the 21st Century, it's most likely to be American. America's divestiture of its public education system, in the late 20th Century, is beginning to pay extremely negative dividends in the 21st Century. Mostly in that we have people speaking for us that don't have a clue, much less the capacity to find a clue. We see it every day, all around us. We have anti-intellectual (so-called) leaders. We even had an anti-intellectual President. Marginalized education and irreverent attitudes toward learning are the primary causes of mass anti-intellectualism. We can't it escape now. Neither can we escape the industrialization of mass incarceration that has seen the nation's prison population triple in two generations, since the 1970s. In a time of prison realignment, suddenly studies have come up with the source.
School dropouts. Oh really? What a surprise. How long did it take for someone to figure that one out? The ignorant and untrained have always led the pathway to prison. What hasn't always been so obvious were the reasons students dropped out of schools. Lack of opportunity and economic hardships have always been barriers to access to quality public education. Once access was improved with the deconstruction of segregation, we discovered that conflicts of teaching and learning culture also proved to be barriers to learning. Society has gone through several iterations of "why children of color" can't learn. It's not that they can't learn. It's that society refuses to try to teach most of them. We try to intellectualize this travesty, and blame the children.
It's not them, it's us. It comes through the promotion of policies that undermine their education.
We've gone through the psychological assessments, the "ADD" and Ritalin solutions to what was termed, "hyper-activity" in some children, and "behavior disorders" in other children. You don't have to guess which children were just "hyper" and which ones were behavior "problems." In the end, it was just another way to implement systemic applications that promote "race disparities." There's a different angle now. More recent studies suggest that some children are even forced out of schools.
This new public discourse around the "school-to-prison pipeline" is really not new at all. It was a predictable outcome of social control planning where the prison industrial complex started forecasting how many prison beds would be needed based on fourth grade test scores two decades ago. Progressive societies forecast job projections and industry shifts. Regressive societies project incarceration rates. The thing about projecting goals is the motivation to fulfill those goals. Thus, the pathway to goal fulfillment is borne.
So, why are we, society, so surprised that incarceration goals have been fulfilled? In fact, they have been superseded as systemic mechanisms to insure that recidivism remains high among certain populations. Some people make a career of returning to jail. Some people have it down to a science. Seventy-five percent of all incarcerates return, at least once. Over half, return twice or more. The only reason we're having this conversation is because some states, like California, have over-incarcerated, meaning minimal offenses to society are "rewarded" with jail time. Well, where did it all start?
It started in the public schools, as certain students are targeted - or forced - out of the public school system, generally for minor offenses. The common theme of the more recent studies suggest that once a student is "sent home" (suspended or expelled), they never return to school. Their next "stop" in society? That's right: prison.
Now this is where we get to the "new racism."
Nationwide studies show that 70% of prison inmates were school dropouts. California suspends 700,000 students a year, almost half (42%) for minor offenses--termed "willful defiance," disruptive behavior that frustrates teachers who use suspension as a form of socially controlling students in overcrowded classrooms.
A statewide survey last year, suggested that most teachers don't even know what the term means but they know it's a "catch-all" term to get kids out of classrooms. Now here's the rub that draws an ugly parallel; the policy is misapplied based on race. Minority students are five times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts. They are also five times more likely to be directed into the juvenile criminal system than their white counterparts, who are diverted away from the criminal justice system.
The nation's largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, was exposed last year when several of its schools divulged that black students, who represented less than ten percent of its student population, represented more than fifty percent of its suspensions and expulsions. Latinos, which represent the largest population, were second. Blacks and Latinos currently represent more than 70% of the state's prison population. What a coincidence. Or is it?
The bigger coincidence is that political and educational leaders fail to recognize these parallels as problematic, and see them more as a function of a broken system than as a function of student behavior. More than half the state's prison population is incarcerated for non-violent offenses.
How long do we allow the school system to be the feeder for the prison industrial complex? The "pathway" from schools to prison has now become quite clear. The means of breaking up that pathway are still quite fuzzy.
Education can't continue to prepare more people for prison than for the labor force. But education is a privilege, not a right. A privilege that has become highly subjective. And prison has become a "right of passage" for many students, based on their race, and they have public education to thank for it. The real question now is: when does it stop?
Or do we need another study for that?
Dr. Anthony Asadullah Samad is an author, scholar and the co-founder, Managing Director and host of the Urban Issues Forum. He blogs at blackcommentator.com and at AnthonySamad.com. This article was originally published at L.A. Progressive.