Saturday, September 22, 2012

The U.S. School to Prison Pipeline

I recently attended a “Examining the School to Prison Pipeline” seminar in Burien, WA. The Schools to Prison Pipeline (STPP) is often described as a nationwide system of local, state, and federal education as well as public safety policies that push students out of school and into the criminal justice system. The STPP philosophy states that the entire U.S. system disproportionately targets youth of color and youth with disabilities. It also states that inequities such as school discipline, policing practices, high-stakes testing, wealth and healthcare distribution, school grading systems, and the prison-industrial complex all contribute to the Pipeline. This seminar was sponsored by a number of groups including the WA State Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA) and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI)

The seminar I attended brought up that STPP operates both directly and indirectly. Directly, schools send students into the Pipeline through zero tolerance policies and often call police over minor disciplinary incidents. School rules are often enforced through school security measures, metal detectors, pat-downs and frisks, arrests, and referrals to the juvenile justice system. Schools that are pressured to raise graduation rates and testing numbers can sometimes improve their statistics by pushing out low-performing students into GED programs or the juvenile justice system. Indirectly, STPP states that schools may push students towards the criminal justice system by excluding them from the learning environment and isolating them from peers through suspension, expulsion, ineffective retention policies, transfers, and high-stakes testing requirements.

Many speakers with impressive credentials in the educational field and in social work were present. There was one doctor; however, who stated that the prison industrial complex is growing. Actually, growth in the U.S. prison system has slowed down, and in many cases been cut dramatically as in California. After several decades of rapid, steady growth, California’s state prison population peaked at 173,000 in 2006, as of this writing the inmate population is under 120,000 and is forecasted to drop even lower. See:  The prison population locked up in Washington State-DOC has also decreased slightly:   Often these drops in population are because of court orders to reduce overcrowding and/or due to the poor economic situation that has affected most state and local governments which forced them to cut back in many areas including corrections. I think it is important to be accurate. What was true a few years ago may not be true today; nevertheless, the seminar discussed many important issues effecting juvenile justice and education.

The need for Early At-Risk Student Intervention was discussed. Special Ed students are federally mandated to get extra one on one help, but not all students of color who are often from poorly funded schools and not in Special Ed. It was noted that in Washington State students have a state constitutional right to an education and that many are having their rights violated. A number was thrown out that only 15% of students in Juvenile lock-up get their GED. While this is a low rate, the speaker neglected to state that in Washington State few juveniles are locked up long enough to get their GED while incarcerated.

It was brought up that curriculum needs to be multi-cultural. I myself as a high school student was involved in protests during the 1970s over books that were totally written from a European and European American standpoint. These protests included a case where we locked the Principle out until we got a social study book that had 1 page about Native Americans, 1 page on how Asians helped build America, 1 page on how Hispanics and Cesar Chavez help feed America, and about half dozen pages on Black History out of 300 some pages. We saw this as a victory and an improvement. While I agree a lot more work has to be done today, I don’t think it is financially responsible or logistically a good idea to have separate race history books. Students should feel all of their ancestors contributed to American society, white kids should not feel blame for slavery that their great great-grand parents may have participated in. There should be productive discussion and lessons on past atrocities in the U.S. and other parts of the world, but students should all come out more united, not more divided.

I also attended a session on “Evidence Based & Promising Practices” in the juvenile justice system. The program presented was the “Raising Our Youth As Leaders” (ROYAL) program out of King County, WA:  This program has been described as being one of the more effective programs in the area and I heard a lot about its good work with youth. Today the “buzz word” with juvenile programs is “evidence based”. In order to get certification it costs tens of thousands of dollars to be evaluated and get an approved designation that qualifies a program for government grants. Some businesses and individuals are making a lot of money today off of the “Evidenced Practices” numbers game and on administrative costs while less is seen directly helping youth! While there has been a past problem of some programs being funded with lack of data and not showing any real results, numbers can be crunched, stats can still be skewed. See my earlier Blog post:  Do Anti-Gang Violence Programs Work?   
Other sessions examined were Disproportionality of School Discipline, Student Stress, the H.O.P.E. Faith-based program by Louis Guiden , Structural/Institutional Racism, Aggression Replacement Therapy (ART), as well as other discussion panels. There was a lot of blaming the system, some which may have merit, but I heard very few seminar attendees wanting to teach the 3 R’s I often talk about: Respect, Responsibility, and Reason. I also heard a lot about government and school dependence to solve problems. I heard very little about the parent's role. There was a lot of talk about reforming the school system but I wondered where is all the money for this and where is the overall action plan? I heard no talk about Teachers Unions and getting their buy in? What about the lack of meeting goals set forth in the "No Child Left Behind Act? My understanding is the Washington Assessment of Learning (WASL) was changed due to future forecasts that too few students would be able to graduate? 

There was a “Youth Voice” discussion panel session of former offenders, some former gang members, that was awesome! A half dozen young men of color were very impressive with their cognitive and speaking abilities over the multitude of problems that youth face today. They all sounded very determined to succeed and not let the system or any individual stop them from achieving their goals. Maybe adults should listen more to our young people and give more encouragement to solve their own problems rather than coming up with solutions we think might help them??????