Washington activists speak about solutions to the school to prison pipeline

  • Written by Tim Gruver

For millions of young students across the country, the school-to-prison pipeline is more than a metaphor. In academic circles, the term describes the impact that American schools’ zero tolerance policies have on juvenile incarceration.

On September 16, local Washington activists will gather at Bothell’s IUOE Hall at 120th Avenue NE to discuss the complexities of the phenomenon and brainstorm solutions.

Jackie McGourty, a representative for the 1st District Democrats, spoke about the event.  “We’ve called on people who are involved with social justice within the broader community for learning how prevalent the school to prison pipeline is,” McGourty said. “We want to speak more about what putting children at risk means and helping them when they’re getting out of the criminal justice system.”

High-quality early learning programs during a child’s formative years have positive short and long-term impacts on kindergarten readiness, success in school, high-school graduation, and reduced involvement in crime.

Every school year, Washington sees at least 43,000 student suspensions and expulsions that carries a high price in the long term. A student who does not graduate high school can accrue an average of $127,000 in unemployment, welfare, food stamps, and prison time.
Funneling of students out of school and into the streets and the juvenile correction system perpetuates the school to prison pipeline, depriving youth of opportunities for education and future employment.

high school(Courtesy photo)Harsh school disciplinary measures, including zero tolerance policies, have proved to be among the first steps to the school to prison pipeline. Dress code violations, tardiness, and fights between students are increasingly common causes for suspensions, which have been linked in to higher dropout rates and an increased likelihood of entering the criminal justice system.

National trends reflect that school suspensions is a better predictor of high school dropout than low socio-economic status, family life, number of school transfers, and percentage of peers planning to attend college.

Senator Andy Billig (D-Spokane) introduced a bill last winter that would ban suspensions lasting longer than a single school day for second-grade students or younger – with the exception of cases involving weapons – in favor of rehabilitative tasks meant to strengthen class relationships.

Historical inequalities in the education system and longstanding stereotypes influence how school officials and law enforcement treat students who exhibit challenging behavior. Most data shows that students of color, low-income students and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected. In March 2012, the US Department of Education’s  Office  for Civil Rights reported that youth of color are disproportionately the subjects of harsh school discipline.

As the director of the Youth Chaplaincy Coaltion, Reverend Terri Stewart works with inter-city youth in need of one-on-one mentoring. While Steward does not impart any religious values in her work, Stewart approaches problems in the classroom as a community problem.
“This is not a ‘send kids away and have other people solve your problems’,” Stewart said. “This is a community challenge, about ‘How do we heal everyone in our community?’ and while focusing on the harm that was done and making amends all the way around.”
Studies from the University of Florida’s Levin College show that schools reliant on more restrictive security frequently apply stricter surveillance methods on students of color without cause. Black students, especially boys, face much harsher discipline than other students.
Schools across the country are increasingly dependent on suspensions, expulsions, and law enforcement to punish students even for minor infractions, harming academic achievement and increasing the likelihood of police citation or arrest.

One of the emerging methods for helping resolve conflict in King County classrooms are  Peacemaking Circles – a process conceived by Saroeum Phoung and inspired by the traditions of the Tagish and Tlingit First Nation people of the Yukon Territories in Canada.
A Peace Circle sees at least three participants sit in a circle of chairs, ideally without anything in between them, who each use a talking stick to take turns speaking and determine what happened, why it happened, and how it can be resolved.

Peace circles can be used in a myriad of settings including schools, neighborhoods, workplaces, among family and friends, and in the juvenile and criminal legal systems.

Stewart believes that processes like Peace Circles are critical to inspire students to address learning barriers, build relationships, and enable students to have a voice in the classroom.

“These aren’t kids with a crime problem,” Stewart said. “These are kids with a trauma problem. It’s all about discovering what the true trauma is and what the root cause is that helps students come together.”

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