Tag Archives: school to prison pipeline

Different Types of School-to-Prison Pipelines

school to prisonThe ACLU released a report recently outlining what the school-to-prison pipeline looks like in New York City public schools in the Bloomberg era:

“The total number of annual suspensions has more than doubled during the Bloomberg administration, from less than 29,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 in 2011. Black students and students with special needs served an outsize proportion of these suspensions.”

They attribute this development to a zero tolerance policy handed down by Bloomberg in 2003:

“Mayor Bloomberg brought a harsh brand of zero tolerance to New York City in 2003, when he announced a new disciplinary plan calling for ‘an immediate, consistent minimum response to even the most minor violation of a school’s disciplinary policy’, including a ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy’ for students who are in trouble repeatedly.”

NYC public school teachers who read these words might wonder on what planet the ACLU conducted this study. Just last year, Chancellor Dennis Walcott released a much more relaxed discipline code for the entire system. Even before this new code, one of the most common complaints from teachers in the city has been the complete lack of discipline in the schools.

I served as a dean for the first few years of my career. Deans in NYC are essentially school disciplinarians. They handle suspensions, parental conferences, arrests and investigations of wrongdoing. One of the first things I learned as a dean was how to suspend as few kids as possible. Kids who got into fights, disrupted class, cursed out teachers or compiled a long list of minor infractions over time rarely saw suspensions. If teachers in NYC tend to feel handcuffed when dealing with classroom discipline, that is because they are.

As a dean, I considered suspension my trump card only to be used in the most serious circumstances. We tried to work on modifying the behavior of disruptive students through mediation, parental involvement and conduct sheets that had to be filled out by teachers. At the time, I considered this a decent “ladder of referral”, as it is called in NYC. A combination of these things, along with a healthy relationship with the students, usually worked in quelling disruptive behavior. This allowed us to reserve our suspensions for the worst transgressions. I felt that using the suspension card too much cheapened its value and made it less effective in the long run.

Of course, this disciplinary tactic opened us deans up to accusations by our colleagues that we were coddling unruly students. The way I saw it, suspension was a poor disciplinary tool. It essentially amounted to a three-day vacation for students. What happens when the kid comes back from suspension only to continue with their unruly behavior? Since public schools cannot expel kids, the only thing left to do was to suspend them again.

The only exception to this is in the case of the “superintendent’s suspension”, as it is called in NYC. A superintendent suspension is usually given in response to a serious infraction, like a major fight or brandishing a weapon or assaulting a teacher. In my salad days as a dean, a “supe’s suspension” entailed getting a parent to pick the kid up from school on the day of the infraction. Then I would tell them to wait for the superintendent’s office to hand down a hearing date. Once the hearing date was set, we had to determine what type of penalty we wished to seek. The penalties ranged from a long suspension to a request for transfer to another school. We then had to go to a hearing where the student, parent and possibly their lawyer had a chance to defend themselves against the accusations being made. In most cases, the parents did not show up and we were able to get the penalty we wanted.

Very few infractions rise to the level of a superintendent’s suspension and fewer still warrant expulsion. In the most extreme case I saw as a dean, three students assaulted the principal which resulted in an all-out rumble between them and the School Safety officers. They were arrested and ended up testing positive for having crack in their system. Despite the egregiousness of this case, it was still a fight to get these kids out of our school. They lawyered up and dragged out the superintendent suspension hearing for weeks.

In the end, the main reason why public schools do not usually seek to suspend kids is that it looks bad on the “data” that has become so ubiquitous under Bloomberg. Principals know that suspension rates are a matter of public record, and also get factored into the school’s annual report card grade, so they discourage deans from pursuing suspensions. This is why schools that routinely get rated as “safe” in NYC can be anything but.

So the question remains: what planet did the ACLU study? Most teachers here would not recognize the zero tolerance suspension mills portrayed in this report.

I searched the entire study for the word “charter” (as in charter school) and the word did not come up once. My suspicion is that the study lumped charter schools in with the rest of the public school system. In that case, I can imagine suspension rates going through the roof over the past decade. The zero tolerance, almost militaristic, discipline code of many charter schools is well documented. Despite the claims of many charter advocates that they are as public as any public school, their discipline, suspension and expulsion policies are of a totally different breed.

In any event, the study does not paint an accurate picture of the discipline policies of NYC public schools. That is not to say that a school-to-prison pipeline of some sort does not exist here. It is just not the lock-em-up, zero tolerance type that exists in other places.

The report mentions the fact that many public schools have metal detectors through which all students must pass every morning. This is true and is not a practice with which I agree. However, I think it is important to look at what happens on the other side of the metal detector. I know a very smart parent who enrolls her children in a charter school. Despite my protestations to her that charters are nothing but test-prep mills, she has a response with which I cannot argue: they do not tolerate unruly behavior.  She does not have to worry about her child sitting in a classroom where kids are constantly disrupting the lesson. She does not have to worry about gang violence and fighting. While she might have an overly negative view of public schools, it is a view shared by many parents who opt for charters. These parents have a point.

There really is little that a regular NYC public school can do to curb generally rowdy behavior. Principals do not want to suspend students. What is more, principals fear angering parents by coming down too hard on kids. They all too often turn a blind eye to unruly behavior for fear of hurting their “data” or having an uncomfortable confrontation with a parent. This blind eye amounts to a sanctioning of bad behavior. Kids are instinctively able to feel out where the limits of the adults lie. Many know that there are very few limits and take full advantage of this.

This does not mean that most kids are unruly, far from it. However, it does not take a classroom full of unruly students to ruin the learning environment. A very small percentage of troubled kids can dominate a classroom or cafeteria. Through the sheer force of their examples and personalities, they can sweep up many of the meeker kids in a nefarious net where mischief becomes the order of the day. NYC’s teaching force is younger and more inexperienced than ever, as is the current crop of administrators. This means that the adults are less equipped to keep a lid on bad behavior. Experienced educators are able to manage school tone through soft means that do not include suspension or other types of harsh disciplinary actions. In short, lax discipline codes and inexperienced adults have been leading to a deterioration of school tone across the entire system.

At the end of the day, this is another version of a school-to-prison pipeline. A good school is able to reward good behavior, recognize the role models in the student body and elevate them so their examples affect all of the other students. What we have is precisely the opposite state of affairs, one where the most aggressive and abrasive students become the role models and set the tone. Other students then learn the lesson that these are the qualities that get one ahead in life. In these cases, schools can become recruiting grounds for gangs and other types of dangerous activity.

This is a school-to-prison pipeline that breeds criminality. Kids can be influenced into committing nefarious acts who might otherwise not be so inclined. They can be compelled to engage in a serious fight or drug use or brandishing of weapons or other types of criminal activity. These actions can lead to arrest and jail time. This type of school-to-prison pipeline is the other side of the same coin as the type of pipeline created by zero tolerance policies that criminalize even the most innocent childhood behaviors. A school can look for wrongdoing everywhere and end up criminalizing everything or it can look for wrongdoing nowhere and foster a culture of criminality. Charter schools fit the former category and public schools the latter.

I respect the ACLU and what they tried to bring forth in this study. However, their treatment of the issue is too thick to be of much value. There are different types of school-to-prison pipelines and I hope one day groups like the ACLU can realize this for themselves.

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New York City and the “School to Prison Pipeline”

The most recent issue of Rethinking Schools has sparked debate on how the education system criminalizes children. The issue features an interview with Michelle Alexander, author of the important book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindess. In part, she blames zero tolerance policies in many schools, where small infractions on the part of students are met with heavy punishments like suspension or prosecution. These policies prematurely end up introducing children to the justice system by criminalizing behaviors common to many young people. Inspired by this piece, Alan Singer of The Huffington Post has run a few articles (here and here) about the prison-like atmosphere in many New York City public schools. He talks about how students are introduced to the criminal justice system early for fairly trivial transgressions on school grounds.

They are mostly right. As a basketball coach, I get to see the inside of dozens of different schools in New York City. School Safety Agents, who work for the New York City Police Department, often bark at us as soon as we get through the door. They want everyone to sign in, show ID and go through metal detectors. While my boys only have to endure this for the moment they are visiting the school (our own school does not have metal detectors), the students who attend these schools have to do this every single day. I can imagine how demoralizing it must be to empty your pockets and be scanned every time you walk into the building. Once the kids are inside, there is no coming out until the end of the day. There is certainly something prison-like about this atmosphere.

However, as a high school dean of many years, I have to take issue with the entire zero tolerance issue. There has been no zero tolerance policy in any school in which I have worked. Most principals around the city are actually afraid of suspending kids or calling the police, since that all goes into the School Environment Survey that impacts a school’s report card grade. The schools that have the lowest rate of violent incidents are the ones who best underreport those incidents, not necessarily the safest. In my old school, there would be times when students would assault teachers, bring weapons or sell drugs without it resulting in any disciplinary action at all. Charter schools are a different story, since they have the weapon of automatic expulsion at their disposal, something regular public schools do not have.

There need not be a zero tolerance policy in place for a school to feel like a prison. There was an incident that occurred when I was a dean of a particularly violent and troubled boy assaulting one of his teachers. The police were called and they asked if the teacher wanted to press charges. The teacher refused, perhaps out of fear of sending the young boy back to juvenile hall, at which point the police washed their hands of the matter. We asked the cops what could be done and they advised me to search the boy every day as he arrived at school. Having a naïve concern for civil rights, I asked if that was not a violation of improper search and seizure, prompting the police officer to say “it’s your school, you can search whoever you want. You don’t need a reason” Nothing brought home to me more the type of netherworld schools can be than that statement. It was quite chilling.

The truth is, zero tolerance is just one path in the school-to-prison pipeline. What New York City does is very different, yet the result is the same. When kids are welcomed by metal detectors every day, when they are subject to arbitrary search at any time, when surveillance cameras are installed, they are subject to the same type of unfreedom that exists in the prison system. At the same time, when learning standards are eroded, when standardized testing becomes the engine of all instruction and when the small schools provide no enrichment opportunities, you make it clear that the only thing that is expected of children is criminality. There is very little left that resembles a place of learning. Children of the inner cities already come from a world of limited horizons where they only know their five-block radius. Our schools do nothing to expand those horizons. Our schools merely confirm the culture of low expectations that already exist in the inner cities.

In fact, the utter lack of discipline in New York City schools, through education law and through the underreporting policies of many principals, ensures that children develop a very keen criminal nature. The only enrichment activity that is allowed is criminality. There are no other outlets for children and nothing else is expected of them. Zero tolerance policies criminalize students and introduce too many of them prematurely to the criminal justice system. Our schools in NYC are already prisons. Like all prisons, the end result is not rehabilitation of the criminal nature, but a refinement of it.

To some extent, schools have always had this resemblance to prisons. Only the individual teacher, through providing a nurturing and inquisitive classroom environment, or through establishing enrichment activities, could mitigate the impacts of this prison structure. But today, in the era of education reforms that destroy the power of individual teachers, this type of nurturing classroom environment is tougher to come by. By harassing the most veteran teachers out of the system and replacing them with Teach for America mercenaries from the suburbs, the cultural understanding that veteran teachers used to provide is vanishing. These things, combined with the increasing obsession with standardized testing, turns the teacher into a correctional officer who barks out arbitrary orders to the people in their charge. “Sit down. Answer this question, You need to know this. If you do not pass this test, you do not graduate. No excuses.”

So while Alan Singer is essentially correct in positing that our schools resemble prisons, zero tolerance policies have little to do with it. Instead, our schools are set up to anticipate and foster criminality in children.