Teaching Opinion

Leaders, We Can Interrupt the School-to-Prison Pipeline

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 18, 2017 5 min read
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The phrase ‘tough on crime’ sits atop a silent undertone. It is not about early intervention or after school programs or drug prevention programs. It is about punishments and putting “them” away. Steven H. Cook, a former police officer who became a federal prosecutor based in Knoxville, Tennessee, has just been appointed as a top lieutenant in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ administration. According to the Washington Post:

Sessions and Cook are preparing a plan to prosecute more drug and gun cases and pursue mandatory minimum sentences. The two men are eager to bring back the national crime strategy of the 1980s and ‘90s from the peak of the drug war, an approach that had fallen out of favor in recent years as minority communities grappled with the effects of mass incarceration.

This is a warning. These appointments to the positions in Washington may be out of our reach and beyond our voice in the voting booth, but we do have ample power in our schools and the neighborhoods in which they reside to educate, care for, and encourage children. We have to continue to educate ourselves in the ways that poverty and incarceration affect the children. The absence of responsible, loving adults in the child’s world, the loss of income and the unrelenting, pounding force of poverty have an extraordinary effect on a child’s well-being and ability to learn. Learning is challenging and the slippery slope of failure begins and is hard to reverse. Some adult, somewhere, has to intervene, has to see the child’s world falling apart and offer even the slightest hope and recognition.

Mandatory minimums have filled prison population with minorities. Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, reported that we have more blacks in prisons than were enslaved in 1850. If drug laws themselves don’t target minority communities, it seems their enforcement has. The heroin epidemic affecting communities across this country means we need treatment programs not more prisons. The excited announcement from Washington that mandatory minimums are going to bring law and order is a warning to educators that our work is cut out for us. The federal government is gearing up to arrest and incarcerate. It makes sense now why the Attorney General reversed the Obama policy to close privately operated prisons. He intends to fill them.

At the same time we are working to avert prison as the eventuality for minority youth by reaching out to neighborhoods where crime exists, where drugs and guns are sold, and where children and families live in fear. We are trying to create spaces where learning can happen and safety exist. We see children and young people as good, even when they make those first mistakes. Others see them as violators who should be caught and removed from the streets as soon as we can. But, we also have the responsibility to educate the others lest we become willing conduits for the school to prison pipeline.

We Can Do This, Robots and Digital Instruction Cannot

While there is much talk about robots and digital learning environments taking away teacher’s jobs, this is one that no robot or online relationship can duplicate. Human relationships, adults showing compassion, care, offering support, and keeping a watchful eye, is a paramount human dynamic of teaching and learning. Poverty, bias, and drugs affect mental health and mental health affects poverty, bias, and it all impacts ability to learn and success at school.

It is essential for the young developing children in our classrooms and communities to feel our care and support, our thoughtfulness and our open hearted welcome.Programs to help the incarcerated and the drug addicted are struggling as numbers increase and drugs take over more and more communities. Schools are in the center of the child’s life and therefore, so too, are we at the center of the social network which brings drugs into those lives and environments. We can disrupt, with a mighty effort perhaps, the development of the behaviors that contribute to entering the pipeline.

While curriculum, teaching and learning remain the essence of our work, assisting the children to be learning ready has long been part of the educator’s job.

Students who appraise themselves and their abilities realistically (self-awareness), regulate their feelings and behaviors appropriately (self-management), interpret social cues accurately (social awareness), resolve interpersonal conflicts effectively (relationship skills), and make good decisions about daily challenges (responsible decision making) are headed on a pathway toward success in school and later life. (CASEL 2008, p. 6).

We can elevate the value of developing self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making within the curriculum in classrooms, behaviors and expectations in extra curricular activities and in hallways. For those who have difficulty and find themselves in the offices of administrators or counselors there is a focused opportunity for the development of these attributes and skills to accompany the receipt of consequences for behavior.

Once students leave our schools, that is often the last we know about their lives. In large districts, once the little ones move on to the secondary programs, those early grade teachers even lose track. Whether they are the children who will grow to be among those incarcerated or those who will not, all children benefit when the value held and followed in schools is to bring a dedication to developing self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making and behaviors and expectations in extra curricular activities and hallways and embed them in speech and action. This is not a job for robots.

We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build the youth for our future. - Franklin D. Roosevelt

Alexander, M. (2012). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press

Photo by stevenmeans67 courtesy of Pixabay

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.