Jurisprudence

Hard Lessons, Hard Time: The School-to-Prison Pipeline

A Black student holds a backpack over one shoulder. A police officer stands nearby.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by golubovy/iStock/Getty Images Plus and AlessandroPhoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Listen to A Word … With Jason Johnson:

A ProPublica report recently exposed a school system in Tennessee where Black children as young as 8 years old were arrested and sent to detention facilities. Their alleged crimes: watching a schoolyard fight without intervening.

The consequences were devastating. Trauma for all the children involved, a financial berth on their families, and enduring the stigma of a criminal record as they begin their lives. It’s just one example of what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline, a series of systems and policies in the nation’s schools that funnel Black, brown, and disabled children into the justice system, often for normal childhood behavior and minor acting out.

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One of the people working to expose and end the school-to-prison pipeline is Lori Martin. She’s a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University, and she’s the author of several books, including Big Box Schools: Race, Education, and the Danger of the Wal-Martization of Public Schools in America. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with Martin, about fighting the school-to-prison pipeline and how parents can protect their children from falling into the criminal justice system. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jason Johnson: So what actually is the school-to-prison pipeline?

Lori Martin: So the school-to-prison pipeline just looks at the many ways in which public schools that are majority-minority or made up mostly of poor children and/or Black and brown children…how those schools are structured and [how] the daily operations work together to increase the likelihood that these young children  –especially boys, but also girls– are going to have some engagement with the criminal justice system. As you mentioned in the case in Tennessee, as a very young person, but also that engagement and that potential increases the likelihood that they will have some engagement with the criminal justice system, even as adults.

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What these kids are often getting arrested for or referred to the system for, it isn’t necessarily illegal behavior. You can refer children to the legal system for things that are not crimes. We’re not talking about a kid who has drugs in their locker. We’re not talking about a kid who steals someone else’s iPad. What’s the range of conduct that can get a child referred to law enforcement in most public schools?

So it’s going to vary from one school to another, but I think at the core of your question is the issue of discretion. We see this with law enforcement officials, as well as with authorities within the school system. Principals, for example, school resource officers, teachers, teaching assistants have a lot of flexibility. And they oftentimes, despite these zero tolerance policies, have a lot of discretion. We see this outside of schools too, with law enforcement. So we hear lots of stories, especially from white young people who will talk about being brought home by a police officer to their parents and escaping any official record of their wrongdoing. But for Black young people, they end up at the courthouse.

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So long as you have, among other things, a racial mismatch among the administration in schools and the teachers, and a lack of understanding about some of the challenges that these young people might face, and even a willingness to do something different than automatically send them through some disciplinary channels, we’re going to continue to see this happening over time.

One of the things that people need to understand is this point you mentioned about the mismatch between the student population being served and the people making the decisions about them. You see schools where 85 percent of the students are Black, but 90 percent of the teachers and principals in the entire school district are white. At schools with a larger number of Black teachers, Black principals, and stuff like that, do we see these referrals to the criminal justice system lessen?

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I think that there’s some evidence to support that there has been a disappearance of Black educators. Just across the board, there’s been a decline in the number of Black administrators, as well as Black teachers. And of course, I want to be careful not to romanticize any particular era or a group of people to act as though, at any given point in time, there weren’t challenges. But many people will lament that back in the day, when they were growing up, that they had educators that looked like them, that lived in their communities, that were invested in them, that wanted the best for them. But we’ve had a lot of different changes. We had an increase in testing. We have increases in the medicalization of different challenges that young people might face. We have a one-size-fits-all approach to education. We have teachers that sometimes, regardless of what their color or background is, don’t have the training that teachers used to have back in the day. So you have someone who’s just coming out of college, who may have been a business administration major, but decides they want to do a year of Teach for America or City Year or some iteration of that. And then they’re in the classroom with a group of folks that don’t look like them with a culture they don’t understand, and they don’t really know how to respond and have no business being in the classroom.

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Some teachers may have lower expectations about what Black children can accomplish. They may automatically look at certain behaviors as deviant and in need of discipline. Whereas for other groups from different racial and gender backgrounds, they respond differently. So it’s a very big and complex issue that’s going to require a lot of thoughtful people being willing to do some really important things.

Do you think sometimes that the school-to-prison pipeline is exacerbated by this cultural disconnect, where the teachers and administrators actually antagonize the students, leading to conflict? That these white teachers, because of how they treat students, or the administrators, because of how they look at these students, are causing the problems that they then use to justify throwing kids into the system?

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I’m so glad you asked that question. Because one of the things that has annoyed me about how people have transitioned during the pandemic, from in-person learning to online learning, is this romanticizing about needing to get back into the classroom, and how it benefits students. And when I think about it, I think that we have to nuance that, and we have to think about that in a more complex way. Because, for some kids, this was a period where they were able to be free. They didn’t have to deal with the trauma associated with being in the classroom for some of the reasons that you mentioned. And so, while we like to cheer teachers as heroes as many of them are very dedicated, some of them have no business being in the classroom. And to these stories that you mentioned, it’s wonderful to see the Dads on Duty and so forth, but it also masks the fact that there are lots of Black men and Black fathers who are doing wonderful things in schools every day. And we don’t talk about those things.

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I always want to take a pause when folks want to focus on one particular matter to act as though that’s going to solve everything. That all you need, is for parents who are allegedly not engaged to suddenly get engaged, and then that’s going to address all of the so-called school violence. When what that does is it doesn’t place any of the focus on what some of the institutional practices are, or the behaviors of teachers. It just places blame on the young people and says what they need is just some structure and for people to either intimidate them or to care about them so that they change their behavior. So I’m not necessarily buying the narrative that that story is trying to sell. Because again, I know that there are a lot of wonderful Black men, Black fathers that are engaged in their children’s education and the education of kids who are not even their children. So I just want to make sure that I make note of that.

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So one of the most disturbing things about the Tennessee case that we mentioned earlier is that there was actually a financial incentive for the county to arrest little Black children. You’ve written a lot about how schools can turn kids into commodities, how that plays out in athletics and how that plays out in other areas. How does that work into the school-to-prison pipeline? How does it financially benefit a school to throw little Black kids into the system?

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I don’t think that there are schools where the school board or the principal and administrators are sitting around a table and they’re saying, “Well, how can we remove some of our students and place them into the criminal justice system?” So it doesn’t always happen that way. When they think about racism, most people are really thinking about just overt manifestations—like burning churches and burning crosses in front of people’s homes—and not thinking about persistent racial wealth and equality or about the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. It’s very much the same with the school-to-prison pipeline that people are not really looking at the disparate impact that some of these policies and practices have on Black and brown children in particular. And so we really have to reckon with that and to say, “What is happening in the schools?” And it’s not just happenstance that over generations we’re seeing these racial disparities persist.

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And of course, to put it in a larger context, as you mentioned, there’s a long history of exploiting Black bodies for profit by members of the dominant group and the broader society. But again, we have to connect this with the broader issues about the criminalization of Black people and Black males in particular, and the dehumanization of them, because it allows folks to look the other way. If this was happening to white children –I mean, it wouldn’t happen to white children– but it would cease immediately if this was something that was happening. We just have to be open and honest about that and not just have conversations but think about, well, what can we do that’s going to be meaningful to really disrupt these systems.

Listen to the entire episode below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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