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  • Writer's pictureDr. Paul Miller

The School to Prison Pipeline

I once a saw a meme that showed two sprinters getting ready to run a race. Sprinter A had 50 meters to run with regular hurdles set up along the way. Sprinter A was obviously trained for those hurdles and would clear them with little to no issues. Sprinter B had an alligator pond before the first hurdle, spiked barb wire before the second hurdle, land mines before the third hurdle, and the last hurdle was seven feet high instead of being 3 feet high. Oh, by the way, Sprinter B has to wear sandbags on his back while running the race.

Which sprinter do you think has an easier race to win? This is the context of being Black in a country that stole you, dropped you into slavery. And when they said they were ending slavery, you were neither safe or free because the laws written and unwritten understood you were less than your white neighbor. Jim Crow laws were designed to keep Black people as second class citizens. The civil rights period was inaugurated to fight injustice and racism, but so many lives were lost just getting to the starting line, lives of everyday people as well as the leaders we all know of. Their fights brought out change in some ways but in others it caused Injustice and Racism (IR) to go undercover and hid itself in socially acceptable forms. Racist ideology wasn't wrong, just wrong to talk about in front of people who are in a position to address and confront it as equals.

Black people have been running as Sprinter B for years, especially when it comes to education. If you remember correctly, slaves were not allowed to read and write, even then they knew that an educated man is a dangerous man. A slave who can read and write, can read a map, and can lead others to a safe place where they were no longer property of their master. The master would kill you if they found out you could read and write. Slavery ended, but can you honestly say that once slavery ended and Jim Crow laws began that all the sudden the masters said “Yes, let’s give them an equal education. Let’s catch them up and give them everything they missed the last 200 years while they were slaves.” No, the laws and the education system were designed to provide the bare minimum of what was said that it had to provide. Why do you think Black people fought to desegregate schools? Do you think that the Black schools were receiving the same quality education as the white schools were?

Let's keep it real. Do you think that the Black schools, today, are receiving the same quality education that white schools are? Last time I checked only 59% of Black males graduate nationally, almost 21 % less than their white counterparts. Just because you can name a few exceptions to the rule, say your Black neighbor who went to Stanford, it doesn't change the rule. It also doesn't mean that the Black kid going to Stanford experienced that success without undue trauma. And it doesn’t mean that his cousin was able to make it out the same way, because while he was Sprinter B, the bags he carried were slightly heavier.

Think of it this way: if a school did its job effectively, it would be a place where there were no sandbags and obstacles. The race would be the same and every student would have the opportunity to succeed. Schools are supposed to be safe places where students can take a journey of enlightenment towards adulthood, college and careers. However, because the systems have been set up against Black and brown youth, schools have often created school to prison pipelines, directly adding to the mass incarceration of Black people, specifically Black men.

Numbers can’t lie, only the people interpreting them can. Many researchers such as Meiner 2007, and Kim et. al. 2010 reported that Black youth, coupled with Black youth who receive Special Education (SPED) services are disproportionately disciplined, receiving higher suspensions, and expulsions in school, which are linked to patterns of overrepresentation in juvenile and adult prisons. Some SPED educators have prescribed that poverty is the reason for Black youth being highly SPED classified and facing disciplinary issues, yet minimalizing the racial considerations. It has been reported by Oswald, Courtinho, & Best 2002, that even Black males in wealthy districts have been classified as mentally retarded at higher rates. The connection being made has nothing to do with being poor or rich, unfortunately it has to do with IR and systems that are set up to limit the young Black man. Schools unnecessarily labeling Black children is the first step in the pipeline.

After Brown Vs. Board of Education segregation occurred, but the new form of separating and segregating happened right in the schools, it happened by classifying Black students as SPED. It began to create the separation right in the same building to keep the Black kids away from the white kids (Sleeter, 1986.) There have been public hearings dating back to the 1950’s where the committees have ruled that they can tell a student will be delinquent by the 3rd grade, currently private prisons are often built based on the math and reading scores of students by 4th grade. How do you criminalize and vilify seven year olds? If the systems are set up to determine by seven, if the Black child will be a juvenile delinquent, doesn’t that equate to a problem? I don’t care what race you are; we all love our children. When you tuck them in at night, not many of you say you’re going to grow up and be the best criminal this world has ever seen, because your school system says you’re a juvenile delinquent.

That system, that foundation of seeing Black students as delinquent is a malignant and very real part of the the Sprinter B scenario across the United States. There are steps we can all take to address, correct, and alleviate this. But before we can discuss what those are, we need to all get clear about what the starting line really looks like.

On your mark, get set...

If this topic is of interest to you, please keep an eye out for my upcoming book in which I'll dig in deep into the real socio-economic dynamics of the school to prison pipeline and the steps we need to take to heal our souls, our communities, and create success.

Dr. Paul Miller is an educational success expert with more than 21 years of experience creating systems and tackling approaches that help Black young men graduate. He is a speaker and the author of We Need To Do Better: Changing the Mindset of Children through Family, Community, and Education, and Cyberbullying: Breaking the Cycle of Conflict.

Comments or Questions? Want to share your educational experience with COVID? I cordially invited you to reach out! All respectful, on-topic comments are welcome.

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