Unfinished Business

Congress Takes on the School-to-Prison Pipeline

By Max Marchitello

Last week’s congressional hearing on the school-to-prison pipeline sponsored by Senator Durbin, D.-Ill.,chair of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights marked an important first step for Congress to address a crisis plaguing our country’s schools and offending the conscience of the nation.

In many public schools, pernicious exclusionary discipline practices such as zero tolerance policies are common place. Extreme disciplinary measures are becoming a far too common recourse for educators as students are suspended or expelled for minor infractions with ever-increasing frequency. These practices do little to deter violence or keep students safe; rather, they have the undesirable effect of impeding student achievement, pushing students to dropout, driving kids into the juvenile justice system and greatly increasing the likelihood of future incarceration.

While these draconian practices adversely impact all students, they are particularly harmful for students of color and students with disabilities who are disproportionately punished under these policies. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s recently released Civil Rights Data Collection, African-American students are 3.5 times more likely than their White peers to be suspended, and students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive more than one out-of-school suspension.

The testimony of Edward Ward, a graduate from the Chicago public school district, offered a powerful window into the everyday realities of attending a school characterized by fear, violence and rampant suspensions. Perhaps most revealing was his description of the relationship between the students and the law enforcement officers in the school: students were afraid to involve police even when bringing a legitimate complaint because then they themselves would be immediately under suspicion and antagonized. He described an environment of fear: “Instead of feeling like I could trust [the police], I felt I couldn’t go to them for general security issues because I would first be interrogated before anything would get done.”

Ward’s experiences unfortunately are not unique. In Philadelphia on the same day as the Senate hearing, over a dozen girls of color were summarily suspended from school for 10 days for fighting and were told they would receive a disciplinary transfer out of the school. Some of the girls are my former students, many of them honors students preparing to go to college with no prior offenses. The most troubling part of this for me, as their former teacher, was when one girl called me distraught, believing that she had destroyed her future because she came to the aid of her friend who was being assaulted. Sadly this is but one example of a national epidemic.

Suspension and expulsion are wrongheaded “treatments” of a problem and do nothing to address the problem itself: student need is not being met. It is time that the adults in our schools consider how the environment and culture they help to create play significant roles in encouraging these behaviors: do policies and practices in the school create a hostile and unwelcoming atmosphere such as the one described by Ward? Instead of punishing the student reaction to that environment, seek remedies that improve school climate and culture, as well as solutions address the root cause of student behaviors.

Fortunately, several of the witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing posed holistic approaches to schooling that dramatically reduce suspensions and expulsions, while simultaneously increasing student achievement. Judge Steven Teske from Clayton County, Georgia, testified to a collaborative “system of care” between the schools, the community, justice system and stakeholders across all sectors. In this model student need is the primary focus. For example, students are connected with community services, interactions with police are recast to allow them to fulfill a protective rather than antagonistic role, and disruptive student behavior is not met with hostility, but rather a desire to get to the root of the problem to assist the student instead of punishing them.

The example of effective practice demonstrated in Clayton County can be mirrored by adopting a broader framework of education as a human right. Fundamental to this approach is the idea that all rights are interconnected and indivisible. Therefore, the faithful employment of this model requires us to examine not only the specific behavior (i.e., a student is consistently late to school), but also investigate the multiplicative factors in and beyond the school that would contribute to tardiness. Understanding education as a human right recalibrates how we approach our students and their needs. We will be better positioned to institute policies and practices as well as foster relationships with relevant stakeholders to transcend merely reacting to student outcomes and begin to treat the underlying causes of student behavior.

The problem we need to solve is not errant student behavior, but the life circumstances that motivate such action. As Judith Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project said on Wednesday, “you cannot suspend your way out of the problem; you cannot arrest your way out of the problem.”

Max Marchitello is the William L. Taylor Fellow at The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Prior to joining The Leadership Conference, Max taught high school English and coached basketball in Philadelphia, PA. Max attended the University of Chicago where he earned a B.A. in English Literature and a Minor in Italian Language and Literature. He earned a Master’s in Education from Arcadia University and a Master’s of Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.