by Sydney Albert
In North Carolina, 48% of students referred to the juvenile justice system are Black. Only 25% of students enrolled in North Carolina schools are Black. Nationally, the ratio of Black to white incarcerated students is 10:1. Black girls are 4 times more likely to be arrested than white girls, and 3 times more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system.
This clear disparity between disciplinary practices for Black and white students and its connection to the juvenile justice system is called the school-to-prison pipeline. School disciplinary practices are funneling minority students out of the classroom and feeding them to the court system, contributing to the overrepresentation of people of color in our justice system today.
On Tuesday, October 20, Paul Robbins of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity moderated the breakaway session School Policies and Discipline Disparities to discuss the factors contributing to this pipeline, the negative consequences, and the areas of intervention. This session, part of the annual Color of Education summit, included Chapel Hill-Carrboro School Board Member Rani Dasi, North Carolina General Assembly Representative Graig Meyer; retired police officer and School Resource Officer (SRO) Michael Anderson, Chief Council for Justice System Reform with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice Tyler Whittenberg, and Director of Education Justice Alliance Letha Muhammad.
Disparities in exclusionary discipline practices are one driving force of the school-to-prison pipeline. In preschool, black children are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended, and in K-12 education 3.8 times more likely. These are influenced by unconscious biases and stereotypes criminalizing and adultifying young black boys and girls. Whittenberg highlights that research shows students of color don’t misbehave at a higher rate than white students, yet teachers view these students on average as older and in less need of support. The media reinforces these negative stereotypes of increased culpability.
The presence of SROs in schools also feeds the pipeline. Anderson emphasizes that a majority of educators and administrators don’t use SROs in the correct way. They are only there to “enforce state law, not school policy”, Anderson says. Teachers overutilize SROs as a form of classroom management and create “unnecessary law enforcement contact”. Anderson emphasizes that “SROs should never be involved in any sort of classroom or school discipline whatsoever”.
Policies exacerbate individual biases. Dasi points to discretionary policies that prioritize individual attitudes and allow subjectivity to influence disciplinary action. She calls for increased accountability measures such as frequent review of disaggregated data, analysis of where teachers consistently over index and subsequent consequences, and identifying supports teacher may need. An awareness of students’ backgrounds, cultures, and history is necessary too to reduce criminalization of minor offenses.
Robbins asks us to question “what are we teaching the students, and what should we be teaching the students with discipline?”. Schools educate about a lot more than textbook facts. Rep. Meyer recounts a time his African American daughter asked him “How come white students are smarter than black people?” She was 12. Teachers and schools transmit ideology through their actions, and students internalize these beliefs. Muhammad argues that the “disproportionate way discipline is enacted against students” teaches students of color that they are less then, not worthy of fair treatment. Whittenberg adds that white students receive the message that black kids deserve the punishment they face. By continuously pushing black and brown kids out of the classroom and not facing any consequences, schools teach that it is justifiable, and places the locus of blame on individual actions of students of color.
Race neutral policies are not the solution. Rep. Meyers highlights that without an equity lens on top of well-designed programs, achievement and discipline disparities won’t be eliminated, and all that is accomplished is a “hypervisibility on the black kids that are already getting targeted more”. The solution is an overall change in school culture, that approaches discipline in a different way. Treat the underlying reason why negative behavior is showing up. Value students as humans who may be in need of additional supports. Muhammad states that “children just want to feel loved…oftentimes the absence of love is what they are feeling when they walk into the classroom”. Stop using SROs to enforce classroom management. Reframe their job description: they are not there to take students to jail, but to make sure these students get their diploma.
The change doesn’t stop at reactive measures. Proactively invest in structural safety by fostering a positive and nurturing environment through increased social and emotional learning, restorative justice techniques, and relational building between peers and adults. Fund social and mental health services, and increase teachers and teacher pay. Give kids more autonomy and self-efficacy to choose their own courses, as interested students are more engaged and better engaged. Intentionally create curriculums that are culturally relevant and relatable to students. Invest on the needs of those most vulnerable of us, and build up the learning environment for all students.
It’s time to commit to disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. There is no blanket policy change, no silver bullet solution. It will require an overhaul of school culture and expectations, but it is necessary to protect our students and ensure each student, regardless of race or color, receives the transformative experience education can be.