Education Opinion

Children’s Defense Fund Shows us Hard Truths

By Anthony Cody — December 30, 2008 1 min read
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Just in time for the new year comes a report from the Children’s
Defense Fund, detailing the actual conditions of the children of our
nation. For many, the conditions are dismal. One in six live in
poverty -- that’s more than 13 million children across the United
States. Almost half that number live in extreme poverty, and nine
million lack health insurance. We can be certain these numbers are
escalating as the recession intensifies -- stealing away jobs and
straining philanthropy.

Our nation leads the world in a number of unenviable categories. We are first in the number incarcerated, first in weapons production and exports, and last in investing in child poverty. The United States and Somalia (which has no legally constituted government) are the only two United Nations members that have failed to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Children’s Defense Fund’s president, Marion Wright Edelman writes,

A cradle to prison pipeline crisis is fueling a massive and costly prison system that is becoming the new American apartheid. It is draining tens of billions of dollars from crucial health and education investments all children need to get into a pipeline to college and productive work. Poverty and continuing racial disparities in all child serving systems are sentencing countless children to dead-end lives. That a Black boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime and a Latino boy has a 1 in 6 chance is a personal tragedy and national catastrophe. We can and must change these horrifying outcomes. If we can bail out Wall Street bankers who have brought our economy to its knees, we can rescue our children from hopelessness, despair, sickness, illiteracy and preventable poverty.

In my visit to the CDF website, I found an awareness campaign that struck a powerful chord with me, focused on the “Cradle to Prison pipeline.” Julia Cass and Connie Curry carried out an in-depth investigation of this phenomenon in Ohio and Mississippi in 2003 and 2004, and drew these conclusions, all highly relevant to educators:

• Many of the young men and women in the juvenile justice system never were in the pipeline to college. They were not derailed from the right track; they never got on it. • Intervention is important in early childhood while the brain is still growing and behavioral patterns are being formed. A lot of a child’s future life story is written by the third or fourth grade. • Many Black and Latino children are behind when they enter kindergarten. • Mental health and emotional problems are a major gateway to the Prison Pipeline. When school, family or community resources aren’t there to help, these children are dumped into the juvenile justice system. • Children who have not learned self-control by the age of eight are at high risk of delinquency and incarceration. Teachers know who they are, but there is no structure for getting help. These children are more likely to be suspended. • Children know by about the third grade whether they are part of the mainstream or of another, more marginal world. Those who are routinely disciplined or struggle with schoolwork mentally drop out at this point. They actually leave school in the ninth grade, the major exit ramp from the path to college. The ninth grade is also the school year when many youth commit their first criminal offenses. • The behavior teachers see as disruptive and disrespectful may be difficult to manage but knowing the children makes their behavior understandable and reveals other ways to work with them. • Truancy—being out of school—is the number one predictor of delinquency. When teenagers drop out of school, they put themselves at the bottom of the economic ladder, probably for life, and are much more likely to be detained and incarcerated, especially if they hang out on risk saturated street corners. • Zero tolerance school discipline policies don’t improve school achievement or teach a lesson to the offender; they contribute to the Pipeline to Prison by pushing students out of school. • School systems are criminalizing school misbehavior, with police officers stationed at schools arresting students for behavior that used to be handled in the principal’s office. • America’s deeply ingrained philosophy that just getting tough is the way to stop misbehavior rarely works, especially with children. The political pendulum swings from more to less punishment but the paradigm itself is worn out and a new one has not taken its place. • Despite the image of super predators and dangerous hallways, most students suspended from school and most juveniles in detention did not commit violent offenses or put the safety of others at risk. • Anger runs like a river through the stories of virtually all the children profiled and of many of their parents. • Teenagers will seek respect wherever they can find it. • Young people may be serviced and diagnosed but they also need real relationships, not just required ones. Thousands of children grow up without a single adult, apart from a mother or grandmother, taking a sustained interest in guiding them and sharing their joys and sorrows.

In Oakland, where I work with teachers, far too many youth are caught up in the cycle of violence described so well here. Far too many are incarcerated rather than enrolled in college. I read this articletoday in the New York Times that describes a town in Rhode Island dominated by a large prison. Once the prisons reach a critical mass, they become an economic engine of their own. The prison guards and private prison owners lobby for expansion of the prisons, and precious resources go in that direction instead of towards the social and educational programs that might prevent incarceration in the first place. If we are to change priorities, we need to articulate a clear alternative to these policies, and catalyze popular sentiment to provide support for alternatives.

Do you see the cradle to prison pipeline in your community? Are there fresh ideas out there for diverting energy in a more positive direction?

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