By Hawa Kamara, MOF Summer 2023 Intern
Hello, my name is Hawa Kamara and I am a senior at Frederick Douglass Academy 1 in Harlem. I was born and raised in the South Bronx and consider myself to be Gambian-American. One of my passions is fighting for Justice within marginalized communities through writing. After graduating high school I plan on attending a 4-year college/university to obtain a degree in international/global affairs, political science, or sociology to prepare myself to pursue a career in civil rights law in the future.
In recent discussions of the school-to-prison pipeline, the idea of whether the American school system leads children into prison has somehow become a point of debate. On the one hand, some argue that policies within the schools fast-track students into prisons. From this perspective, schools do in fact set children up for life in prison. Others argue that the school-to-prison pipeline is used as a scapegoat to avoid conversations around different difficult issues.
Robert Ward, who wrote a piece in 2017 entitled, “The Myth of the School-To-Prison Pipeline,” stated, “Clearly, schools are not the main cause of the unconscionable number of people behind bars. Yet somehow, schools and teachers bear the blame and shoulder the stigma– and are saddled with becoming the sole solution.” According to this view, the school system is not responsible for the mass incarceration of students.
My own view is that some school policies without a doubt fast track students into prisons. Though I concede that schools generally want to benefit students’ welfare, I still maintain that they do lead most minority low-income students into prisons. Though some may argue that the school-to-prison pipeline does not exist, most minority and low-income youth face a greater risk of incarceration in America because of systemic racism and school policies that naturally punish students of color as a consequence. This issue is crucial because it affects everyone in every capacity.
The growth of the school-to-prison pipeline is a natural consequence of systemic racism. Racism has strong, deep roots in the education system and in America itself. For instance, a book about the school-to-prison pipeline, Students Under Siege: How The School-To-Prison Pipeline, Poverty, and Racism Endanger Our School System, emphasizes, “The path to prison often begins in childhood and in schools segregated by race…”
In other words, the school-to-prison pipeline envelops children early on, and it relies heavily on race to target these defenseless children.
If a child is in a state of constant poverty, their mind runs on where their next meal is coming from, not on abstracts like grades and education. Poverty is the reason for the downfall of many people – it is a well-known contributor to increased rates of suicide.
In the blink of an eye, children of color are given a criminal record for the smallest infraction that sticks to them for the rest of their life. These minority students are not given a fair chance at succeeding in schools because they are limited to certain things like in the Jim Crow era. Minority students are forced to attend underfunded, low-succeeding schools because it is within their school zone, zones that do not have minority students’ best educational opportunities in mind. These zones were created through racist practices like redlining, limiting minority students’ ability to thrive.
It’s abundantly clear that the school-to-prison pipeline thrives off of systemic racism, as it perpetuates the idea that minority students are not worth the time or energy needed to properly educate them, as they will end up uncivilized regardless. If we refer back to The White Man’s Burden by Rudyard Kipling, it is the white man’s duty to educate the uncivilized. This colonialist ideal was one of the many excuses that Europeans used to colonize Indigenous lands.
The education system’s burden is to educate minority students, but the mindset has shifted. There is no feeling of need to educate as there was for the white man. The education system has simply given up and decided to throw its burden in prison instead. A rather modern yet ineffective alternative.
Many opponents of the school-to-prison pipeline would probably deny that it even exists. It is an excuse to blame the existing issues of systemic racism on the only structure that tries to provide minority communities with opportunities.
Robert Ward may argue that, “The real culprits in the often intentional corrupting of kids and the tarnishing of their once-bright futures are more likely to be political paternalism, poverty, the systematic undermining of public schools, and an omnipresent media that glamorizes and normalizes violence, materialism, narcissism, hypersexuality, and anti-intellectualism. Our schools are actually one of the few places that continuously strive to counter all that external negativity and neglect.”
Ward is right in saying that poverty and anti-intellectualism are to blame for high juvenile delinquency rates. If a child is in a state of constant poverty, their mind runs on where their next meal is coming from, not on abstracts like grades and education. Poverty is the reason for the downfall of many people – it is a well-known contributor to increased rates of suicide.
The outcome of these harsher policies in schools that serve these communities are students who simply don’t care for their education anymore because the school will throw a punishment at them for any reason they please, even for being two minutes late.
The growth of anti-intellectual movements is also to blame because it promotes ignorance and the dismissal of literature and works of art as truth. It preys on students’ vulnerability and capitalizes on their blatant ignorance.
However, schools are the building blocks of who a person becomes – whether they become a follower or a leader, a victim of their circumstances or a survivor of them. Schools prepare students to enter the real world and make real-world decisions; so when they are funneled into prisons, it is the school’s fault for not adequately preparing students to survive.
While the amount of students at or below the poverty line is a valid concern, the role schools play in helping those students reach incarceration rather than a diploma or degree plays a more crucial role. Ward’s argument fails to include any actions that schools take to help students facing poverty, anti-intelligence, and media propaganda succeed beyond prison walls. Ultimately, shifting the blame of juvenile incarceration to other factors only strengthens the role schools play in youth incarceration.
As a consequence of systemic racism, school policies have significantly contributed to the incarceration of students. According to Education or Incarceration: Zero Tolerance Policies And The School-To-Prison Pipeline, zero-tolerance policies are growing in popularity among school officials: “While there is no official definition of the term zero tolerance, generally the term means that a harsh predefined mandatory consequence is applied to a violation of school rules without regard to the seriousness of the behavior, mitigating circumstances, or the situational context”.
In other words, zero tolerance policies generally are a one-size-fits-all glove that seek out minority youth to exact punishment, no matter the violation.
I agree that schools have the obligation to push youth into the real world and engage in different forms of knowledge and communities. Schools are in charge of helping students grow to become mindful and productive members of society, which is why zero-tolerance policies are enforced.
Policies within schools can be reanalyzed and police officers can be replaced by school psychologists and counselors for students… Race-aware training can be held more often to teach teachers and administrators how to deal with race-based situations and avoid implicit racist biases.
However, this cannot happen with the addition of severely harsh punishments for small offenses such as talking back to a teacher or having a minor physical altercation with another student. Schools implementing punitive punishment for minor incidents does not deter any behavior. Zero tolerance policies affect minority youth because they are already disenfranchised in the United States because of slavery; after all, the Civil Rights Act was only 59 years ago.
The outcome of these harsher policies in schools that serve these communities are students who simply don’t care for their education anymore because the school will throw a punishment at them for any reason they please, even for being two minutes late. These youth will turn away from the golden path of education and turn to darker paths that aren’t legal, but much more lucrative and less rigid in rules and regulations. This overly harsh policy is negatively affecting students’ education and ultimately landing minority students in prisons.
Overall, some may argue that the school-to-prison pipeline does not exist but it is blatantly obvious it does exist because of school policies, systemic racism, and a lack of resources in schools. If the school system continues to operate the way it has been, the American minority population will be the majority of the prison population.
This does not have to happen though. Policies within schools can be reanalyzed and police officers can be replaced by school psychologists and counselors for students. A safe room can be established in schools for students to get a break from the stress they experience in and outside of school. Race-aware training can be held more often to teach teachers and administrators how to deal with race-based situations and avoid implicit racist biases. School districts can reassess their structure and dismantle elements of racism within it. Budgets can be readjusted at the federal level to provide more funding to schools to educate the youth better and update issues within schools. Students can express their needs to administrators and their local representatives at the state and/or federal level.
These actions take a lot of time to work out and a lot of self-improvement to execute, but it is possible with everyone’s cooperation from all walks of life and differing communities. If these actions are not taken, I am sure that minority students will be more familiar with the prison system than the education system by age seven.
- “Education or Incarceration: Zero Tolerance Policies and the School to Prison Pipeline” by Nancy A. Heitzeg.
- STUDENTS UNDER SIEGE: How the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Poverty, and Racism Endanger Our School Children by Karen Dolan, et al.