Incarcerate or education

Are our children being pushed into prison?

Carla St.Louis | 1/30/2014, 9 a.m.

In 1993, Debra Mayes Pane witnessed a phenomenon that changed the course of her professional career.

While teaching at Teaching and Rehabilitating Our Youth (TROY), a Miami-Dade County Public Educational Alternative Outreach School, she first experienced the “revolving door,” a trend in which Black students were continually cycled in and out of school and court because teachers constantly “kicked [Black] kids out of class.”

She never experienced this trend with her white students.

Her experience led her to start a non-profit organization, Eradicating the School-to-Prison Pipeline Foundation (E-SToPP), dedicated to developing quality and equitable high schools and educational programs for youth who have been suspended, expelled or incarcerated.

“I believe that with a concerted effort among all stakeholders in the community, we can transform the educational outcomes and ultimately the lives of disenfranchised youth in the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said. “[Through E-SToPP] we hope to transform public schools and juvenile justice schools so that those who have been suspended, expelled or incarcerated can successfully reenter school, family, community and society.” 

What is the school-to-prison pipeline?

The school-to-prison pipeline is a cycle of exclusionary discipline that removes students from classrooms through a series of disciplinary acts that lead to adult prison.

The term was coined in 2003 when a theme linking school discipline and juvenile justice data emerged during a joint research conference co-sponsored by the Civil Project and Northeastern University’s Institute on Race and Justice.

Based on the trajectory, a Black male student is more likely to be reprimanded at a severe rate starting with a referral for perceived disruptive behavior, an act that’s subjective and studies show, based increasingly on race. If the ‘disruption’ continues, that same student will receive further discipline in the form of a suspension that leads to poor performance within school due to missing days and attempting to meet his class’ learning curve. The teacher may now equate the student’s ‘bad behavior’ with ‘bad learner’ and develops a classroom bias towards him. The youth, in turn internalizes those beliefs and subsequently loses interest in school altogether succumbing to dropping out or expulsion to an alternative school. If the child feels the same experience will occur in an alternative school, he is likely to drop out of the education system and resort to a life of crime. Thus, turning him into a criminal who has already been institutionalized and readied for the prison industrial complex system.

First-hand encounter of the school-to-prison pipeline

Amir Whitaker’s first experience with the school-to-prison pipeline occurred when he was in second grade.

“I was suspended from my 2nd grade class after someone wrote a curse word on my paper,” he said. “Even though my parents vouched for me and told my teacher it wasn’t my handwriting, I was still suspended.”

By middle school Whitaker was regularly being suspended for fights. By the 11th grade he had already been expelled from his high school. Faced with attending an alternative high school, he folded but soon discovered the work was “remedial” and decided to drop out of the education system altogether. After being arrested and receiving counseling from family members and loved ones, he became highly aware that in order to succeed in life he needed to return to school, despite having internalized the classroom bias placed on him.