Tuesday, March 4, 2014

School to Prison Pipeline: Looking Deeper

When schools employ armed policemen to manage their hallways, and when desperate teachers call law enforcement to discipline disrespectful students, the first question we have to ask is, “How did these schools get into this condition in the first place?” What false starts, historic developments, or current issues result in a  building's becoming a contributor to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Students' Behavior Always Speaks

One thing I have learned from decades of working with chronically misbehaving students is that behavior always speaks. Young people’s behavior always carries a message, and that message is almost always meant for the adults who should be leading them, protecting them, sacrificing for them, and demonstrating commitment to them, specifically, their parents and their school teachers.

Because I am the principal, my visits to classrooms usually evoke exemplary behavior from students. I seldom see infractions of classroom rules, particularly in classrooms in which teachers have established expectations for positive student behavior. When students do act up in my presence, I pay attention. If the environment feels insecure to kids, or if they are fed up with a weak teacher’s lack of leadership in the classroom, they will let me know through fairly ridiculous behavior.

They may talk loudly and theatrically to a friend across the room and then glance at me. Their peer may respond, then, in a similar tone. Students’ responses to the teacher’s questions or directions may verge on disrespect. If the teacher does not address their behavior, the students overtly watch for my reaction. They want me to know that their teacher is not managing the class.

Why would young people refuse to go to class on time, talk back to adults or, worse, ridicule and intimidate them, spending their days in school roaming hallways, challenging one another to fights or arguments, or engaging in dangerous horseplay? 

Obviously, because they can.

This behavior is a blatant and repeated message: the students feel contempt for the adults in the school building. Their behavior fairly shouts that they view the grown-ups as punks. The adults are irrelevant and ineffectual to these students. What school claims to offer them, at least in these students' current experience, is a sham.

Anger is a Secondary Emotion

African-American students, especially males, are three to five times more likely to experience school suspensions and incarceration as their non-black peers. As young black males grow into their teens, they cannot miss the devaluing messages of our society. Nearly every one of them experiences racial profiling in some form. They are constantly barraged by news stories in which non-blacks, and particularly authority figures, appear to get away with incarcerating or murdering black youngsters, with little provocation.

We learn, in working with rage-filled kids, that anger is a secondary emotion, masking shame or fear. When teachers cannot help young people facing issues of self-worth, fear of nihilism, fear for their futures, and fear for their families, and when adults fail even to acknowledge these interior struggles, is it any wonder the youngsters have little patience with the authority figures in their lives?

These students’ behavior issues a direct challenge to their teachers and principals:  “You think you have something to teach me? Then bring it. What can you tell me? How can you help me? How are you going to save me from my life?”

Adults' Behavior Carries Messages Too

Many teachers in high-needs, urban schools choose to work there, accept their students as they are, seek to understand their struggles, and embrace and celebrate their cultures. They are highly motivated to foster the connections that will best serve their students, demanding the best from them from the stance of caring relationships. I am privileged to work with many teachers like this. 

It takes a great deal of insight, empathy, and realism to be a teacher of any consequence (whether black, white, or other) to teens in high-needs neighborhoods facing the threat, or the reality, of homelessness, addiction, hunger, cold, incarceration, or violence. Not all teachers (or principals) in inner-city schools have the messages and leadership that young people in these conditions need or will respond to. 

While a building-wide discipline system cannot turn ill-equipped teachers and principals into dynamic role models for inner-city kids, it can send the message that students are worth our holding high expectations for, worth our holding out hope for, even in this treacherous society. 

Adult behaviors carry messages, too. The least a school can do is provide the structure that says, "You are worth our time and attention, our patience and understanding. You are worth being disciplined - reasonably, with compassion and coaching - because we expect something of you, because we care about you."

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