The School-to-Prison Pipeline

Thursday, December 10th, 2009

I hope the Dignity in Schools Campaign overflows its banks, spilling awareness into every corner of the country.

“Millions of children and youth are denied educational opportunities in the United States,” begins the National Resolution for Ending School Pushout, which some 200 organizations in 43 states have so far signed. “This injustice results from systemic inequality and a lack of public commitment to doing what is necessary to keep all young people in school.”

Can we sit with this statement a moment, please? Can we sit with it without blame, denial or quick opinions, and simply let it wash at the edges of our sense of national greatness? Our military, political and cultural thrust reaches every corner of the globe. We’re the world’s only superpower. And we’re feeding our own children — a shocking percentage of them, at any rate — into a sort of Darwinian meat grinder of low expectations, zero tolerance and fend-for-yourself hopelessness.

This is our school system in much of Poverty America: an ill-funded, desperate and deteriorating bureaucracy of bad ideas and entrenched disrespect for everyone — especially those who care. When I was an outside writing consultant, some years ago, at several high schools on the West Side of Chicago, I saw first-hand the us-vs.-them mentality that prevailed, as though the schools were colonial outposts in these low-income neighborhoods, run by an occupying army.

“Every year,” the resolution continues, “too many students are pushed out of school by degrading environments and harsh disciplinary measures that undermine their learning.”

One result of this situation is what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Once again, let us pause and think about this, and ask whether it’s right, and if it isn’t, why addressing the phenomenon of abandoned children — abandoned to a punishment-based system of discipline, increasingly entrenched over the years, combined with historic racism and inadequate school funding in low-income neighborhoods (where the resources are most desperately needed) — is not a national priority. How long do we think we can continue to throw away the lives of our children, with a shrug, with a fancy dance away from responsibility, before we destroy our own future?

“Young people and parents are the agents of change,” said Elizabeth Sullivan, program director for the New York-based Human Right to Education, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, and one of the conveners of the three-year-old Dignity in Schools Campaign. Punitive, one-size-fits-all discipline is not the best way to revere and nurture the potential of young people, but may well be the best way to snuff it out. Our future either flowers with the nurturing of the young or it withers and dies.

With this in mind, the Dignity in Schools Campaign asks us to recognize the need for — and to demand — a cultural or paradigm shift in our school system. The paddle and dunce cap have outlived their symbolic usefulness by at least a hundred years.

The resolution goes on: “Fundamental human rights principles, recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, offer a framework that shifts our approach to education and school discipline in the United States.”

Beginning with this fundamental shift in thinking and attitude, the resolution calls for such fundamental and radical changes in our schools as policies that are “aimed at the full development of the child”; staff “well-trained in positive approaches to discipline”; “high expectations for all students” and a focus on establishing “a culture of youth prepared for lifelong learning.” While these are the values held by just about every teacher I’ve ever met, the system — except where it is beginning to change — defeats them at every turn and burns them out if they care too much.

“We don’t value one another as human beings — especially children,” said Damekia Morgan, speaking in a video interview at “Our children don’t value their own lives — thus they don’t value yours, either.

“People have to get angry enough to hold this country accountable,” added Morgan, of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (one of the groups allied with the Dignity in Schools campaign). “Every child who is born has the right to an education — not just any old education but one that will allow them to live up to their fullest potential.”

If you’ve seen children flushed through the school-to-prison pipeline — a process that begins for some in kindergarten, as misbehaving tots wind up being expelled before they have the faintest idea what the word means — you will feel the pulse of outrage and the cry for fundamental change in Morgan’s words.

Educating our young — joyously celebrating the potential they themselves may not yet know they have — is an enormously difficult challenge, especially in neighborhoods devastated by poverty and historical racism, where so many families are in financial and emotional tatters. But if we don’t embrace this challenge, we’ve lost our future in the pipeline.