Sunday, March 2, 2014

Answering the School to Prison Pipeline

The school to prison pipeline is a well-documented social malady. A combination of school policies and practices results in increased numbers of suspensions and expulsions, especially in schools with students from poverty and families of color. Students who are suspended, or who drop out of school, are 20 times more likely to be imprisoned during their late teens and early twenties.


School leaders are under fire for adopting “No Tolerance” policies that result in over-disciplining students for mild infractions. Employing policemen to manage school hallways is counterproductive to a positive school environment and likely comes about because school personnel are unable to control the student body. Lack of adult control stems from a lack of strong leadership in the school, specifically in the area of student discipline. 


When I read the stories about teachers who call the hallway police to handle disrespectful and defiant students, resulting in arrests for behaviors the school should handle, I know those extreme responses result from either very bad judgment by vengeful or fed-up adults or, more likely, from teachers’ hopeless desperation to manage challenging and defiant students.


When teachers don’t get the support they need to hold students accountable to attend class, to refrain from hurting one another or from disrupting lessons, and to cooperate with adult authority, they are left to find any means they can to manage their classrooms.

Even though over-disciplining students contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline, the answer is not to do away with school discipline. The answer is to provide appropriate and effective discipline that marginalizes bullies and student power brokers and that ensures security to the majority of the student population and the teachers.


It is the absence of a comprehensive and relational school-wide discipline system that causes the negative, defeated, dangerous school environment in the first place. The grown-ups in the building fail to establish order and to communicate high expectations for behavior.

Perhaps the building leader is not equipped to fight the fight to turn the climate around. Perhaps he or she believes that district officials will not support the initial strong tactics it often takes to establish who is in charge. The relatively few school leaders who do know how to embed an effective school-wide discipline system may have to struggle with teachers who are so embattled that they barely believe a change is possible.


In order to get such a school environment in working order, the principal and teaching staff must describe the specific climate they want and determine to fight until they get it. Initially, large numbers of suspensions or expulsions (based on suspend-able offenses, of course) may be necessary to establish enough order for school personnel to control the environment.


No matter how much we want to keep all students in school, we cannot allow youngsters to engage in gang violence and gang recruitment, in selling or promoting drugs and alcohol, or in terrorizing their peers and teachers, without serious consequences. If students are this far gone, we cannot allow them to run the school.


School leaders must make a strong showing by “cleaning house” through suspension or expulsion, depending on the severity of the offenses. 
An effective school-wide discipline system clarifies expectations for behavior, communicates predictable school-based consequences, and supports teachers’ implementation of discipline. It can be done.

To interpret the cause of the school-to-prison pipeline to be any discipline, and any suspension, is to throw the baby out with the bath water. To continue to over-discipline, even out of desperation, instead of implementing a simple system of discipline, is like using a shotgun to kill a mosquito.

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