Humanizing Schools: Breaking Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline

When growing up in Memphis, Tenn., three attributes pervaded my school environment, which are non-existent in many urban schools today: a humanized educational environment; teachers who believed in us and expected us to learn; and punishment, which was used as a corrective mechanism and not as a means to criminalize students for adolescent behavior. More and more, as these attributes are no longer manifest in many urban schools, the links between the education system and the commercial correctional complex are becoming progressively indistinct. Instead, we have a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems, according to the ACLU. A great deal of the children funneled into the criminal justice system have learning disabilities, histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services, says the nonpartisan, not-for-profit advocating individual rights. However, a more disturbing finding by the ACLU is that children are punished and pushed out by strict policies that criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while high-stakes testing programs encourage educators to push out low-performing students to improve their schools' overall test scores.

Black students are more than three and a half times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled, and more than 70 percent of students arrested in school or handed over to law enforcement were black or Hispanic, according to Civil Rights Data Collection's survey of roughly 72,000 schools, covering about 85 percent of the nation's students from K-12. The survey also found that black students comprise only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools, yet they are three and a half times more likely of being suspended or expelled than their peers who are white.

If we are to stem the deleterious impacts of the school-to-prison pipeline within communities of color, the first step is to humanize our schools. By this, I mean compassionate discipline. Urban sociologist Pedro A. Noguera posits that when teachers fail to understand the students, punishment meted out is usually devoid of compassion, and is undertaken due to teachers' prevailing stereotypes and a fear of "urban" students. The most salient factor in the discipline phase is fear. Considering the carnage that has taken place in suburban school districts, teachers' fears of urban students seem misplaced.

When teachers fear their students, Noguera has found that concerns about safety and control take precedence over teaching. In schools where safety and control are more important than teaching, metal detectors, police officers and security guards are the norm and a prominent presence, thereby promoting the feel of a prison instead of an educational institution. A psychosomatic byproduct of this police state within the school system is a heightened fear of violence as displayed by teachers' reactions, and a perverse acceptance of the prison culture by students.

To change the dynamic, Noguera suggests that schools replace fences, metal detectors, police officers, and security guards with volunteers from the community, improve the aesthetics of schools, and imbue a strong sense of community involvement and collective responsibility. This does not mean teachers and administrators should turn a blind eye when students act irrationally and exhibit odd, dangerous behavior like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris did in the days and weeks before their massacre at Colombine. Instead, this is about empowering students to be responsible for their future, learning from their mistakes, and charting a course toward academic excellence.

Aaron Kupchik, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has said having police officers assigned to schools is not best option to prevent school violence. Instead, he found that police expansion in schools leads to increase student offending rates, an abridgement of students' rights, and an over-policing of students, especially minorities.

In school districts nationwide, minority children as young as 6 years old have received citations by police officers to appear before a magistrate in municipal courts for adolescent behavior. Shockingly, a 6-year-old kindergartner was taken from her Milledgeville, Ga., elementary school in handcuffs for throwing a temper tantrum. It's hard not to question the teacher's motivations to seek police intervention with a 6-year-old.

Because minority students are most likely to be cited and referred to courts, this has led to early and disproportionate contact with the juvenile justice system. This type of behavior cannot continue to be tolerated if we hope to demolish the school-to-prison pipeline. As it stands now, schools in urban environments look like farm systems for prisons in the way they are currently configured and managed.

Policy makers, school administrators and teachers need to embrace all children, and expect them to participate in their education and be active, positive members of their community. Researchers have frequently proven that teacher expectations matter. The Education Commission of the States (ECS) averred that teachers' expectations are often influenced by such factors as race, ethnicity, and family income levels. Each of these variables can significantly affect students' academic performance in the short and long term. The same study found that for teachers with low student expectations, there is an estimated 5 to 10 percent variance in student achievement with implications for the achievement gap between blacks and whites.

The ECS study resonates with me on a personal level. My cousin and I were in the same first grade homeroom. Because his appearance was usually disheveled and mine always neat, teachers treated me differently. I remember my homeroom teacher telling the class that I would be successful, and telling my cousin that she did not expect much of him. He was held back several times and was eventually placed in special education.

Because my teachers always expected more from this well-groomed kid who grew up in public housing, I always responded affirmatively to their high expectations. I wonder if that same teacher would have expected any less from me had I also appeared disheveled, regardless of my academic abilities. The ground-breaking 1968 study Pygmalion in the Classroom -- in which researchers gave teachers false information about the IQ results of select students -- first proved this very point: teacher expectations matter. This study found that those students whom teachers expected to perform well showed significantly higher gains in intellectual growth than their classmates at the end of the year.

We need to look seriously at how to use discipline, or punishment, as a way to correct, teach, and enhance the educational experience instead of as a way to facilitate contact with the criminal justice system, already aided by the presence of police officers and security guards in schools, who send students not to the principal's office but to the courts.

If we are to truly commit to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, we must commit to more education spending rather than increased correction spending. This re-prioritization of values would also mean spending as much on education as we lavish on sports and entertainment.

Dr. Byron E. Price is the Dean of the School of Business and Professor of Public Administration at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York and co-editor of Prison Privatization: The Many Facets of a Controversial Industry.