From Schoolyards to Prisonyards

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S2: 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.

S1: Stopping the school to prison pipeline, coming up on a word with me. Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to award a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host Jason Johnson. A ProPublica report recently exposed a school system in Tennessee where black children as young as eight 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 burden 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. 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 and Lori. Martin joins us now. Welcome to a word. Thank you. So what actually is the school to prison pipeline?

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S2: So the school to prison pipeline just looks at the many ways in which public schools that are majority minority are made up of mostly of poor children and or black and brown children. How those schools are structured and, you know, 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’ll have some engagement with the criminal justice system even as adults.

S1: What these kids are often getting arrested for or referred to the system for it didn’t necessarily like 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?

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S2: Yeah. 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. And 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 who have a lot of flexibility. And they oftentimes, despite these zero tolerance policies, have a lot of discretion. And we see this outside of schools to right with law enforcement. So we hear lots of stories, especially from, you know, like 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, you know, at the courthouse and the, you know, the law and the police officers telling them to tell it to the judge, right? So long as you have, among other things, a racial mismatch among the administration in schools and the teachers and the 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.

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S1: One of the things that I also think people need to understand, and I like that you mentioned this point, this mismatch between the student population being served and the people making the decisions about them. Right? And you see schools where, you know, 85 percent of the students are African-American, but 90 percent of the teachers and principals in the entire school district are white. Like, do we see data that schools with a larger number of of black teachers, black principals and stuff like that? Do we see that these referrals to the criminal justice system, do they lessen?

S2: So I think that there is some evidence to support that. There has been a disappearance of black educators, so just across the board that 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, you know, at any given point in time, there weren’t challenges. But many people will admit that, you know, back in the day when they were growing up that they had educators that look 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 medicalisation of different challenges that young people might face. We have a one size fits all approach to education. We have teachers that are 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 decided they wanted to do a year and teach for America or city year or some iteration of that. And then now they’re in the classroom with a group of folks that don’t look like them with a culture they don’t understand and don’t really know how to respond and have no business being in the classroom. Some teachers may have lower expectations about what black children can accomplish. They may automatically look at certain behaviors as deviant and are 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.

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S1: So I like this idea. One, I want to dig a bit further into this, this idea of, you know, what the difference can and cannot be when you have black administrators and teachers, I’m sure you have seen, you know, lean on me, like, there’s just romance. Be right, you know, of of Joe Clarke. And he’s like, You know, you’re going to lose it. Call me crazy Joe. And are you going to call me Batman? But then you have that contrast to a story that’s been getting a lot of attention lately about dads on duty, about a high school in Louisiana, where after 23 arrests within just a couple of days, just a group of black fathers said, Hey, we’re going to patrol the hallways, and suddenly all the discipline problems disappear. So do you think also 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 used to justify throwing kids into the system.

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S2: I’m so glad you asked that question, because one of the things that has annoyed me about, you know, 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, you know, I think about it. I think that we have to nuance that and we have to, you know, 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, you know, while we like to cheer you, teachers as heroes, as many of them are very dedicated, some of them have no business being in the classroom and to the stories that you mentioned. I mean, it’s wonderful to see the, you know, dads on duty and so forth. But it also kind of mask 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, you know, both things. And so I always want to take a pause when folks want to focus on one particular matter to act as though like, that’s going to solve everything. That’s all you need is for parents, those two who are allegedly not engaged to suddenly get engaged. And then that’s going to address all of the so-called school violence. When that and what that does is doesn’t place any of the focus on what some of the institutional practices are or the behaviors of teachers. It just put places the blame on the young people and say 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. And so I’m not necessarily buying the narrative that 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, in the education of kids or not even their children. So I just want to make sure that I make note of that.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. We come back more on fighting the school to prison pipeline. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson, host of a word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else, I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear, please subscribe rate and review wherever you listen to podcasts and let us know what you think by writing us at a word at Slate.com. Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking about fighting the school to prison pipeline, what sociologist Lori Martin? So one of the most disturbing things actually about the Tennessee case that we mentioned earlier is that there was actually a financial incentive for the county to arrest little black children. So you’ve written a lot about how schools can turn kids into commodities. How that plays out in athletics and how that plays in other areas. How does that work into the school to prison pipeline? How does how does it financially benefit a school to throw little black kids into the system?

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S2: I don’t think that there are schools where the school board or the principal 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, like you mentioned early on about how people use the term racism. But 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, like persistent racial wealth inequality or about the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. So I think it’s very much in the same way 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, you know what is happening in the schools. And it’s not just happenstance that over generations we’re seeing these racial disparities persist. And of course, to put it in a larger context, as you mentioned, it’s 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, it wouldn’t happen to white children, but it would cease immediately if this was something that was happening and said, we just have to be open and honest about that and not just have conversations that I know that you would appreciate but think about, well, what can we do that’s going to be meaningful to really disrupt these systems?

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S1: Let’s say I’m a parent and I’m moving to a new school district. What kind of language and where would I see it? That would give me a sign that like, Hey, you know what? Maybe we shouldn’t move this school district like, is it language you should look for in the school charter? Is it language you should look for on the school website? Like, how do you know that you’re potentially putting your black child your precious little king or queen into an environment where they’re going to be seen as potential commodities or subjects to be abused?

S2: So I mean, one thing is looking at the most schools have a school handbook. And if you look at their dress codes, for example, and they have policies that are clearly anti-Black like about hairstyles and so forth, that might be a warning sign. Unfortunately, a lot of that information is available online and so you can do a little bit of research and thank goodness, very social media where there’s black Twitter or whatever else. You can also reach out to people and communities that you’re considering where you can search news reports again. They might not tell the full story, but if you know, the NAACP has called for an investigation of a school district because of ongoing racial disparities in disciplinary actions, it may be that the community you don’t want to go to then. On the flip side, too, there’s also the the duty that many of us have on black parents and black people in general feel that we have to change systems as well to the extent that we can. So some of us may not see those red flags and run from them, but run towards them and say, How can I change this system not only for my child, but for other children here? And again, this benefits not just the black children and the brown children who are disproportionately affected, but it helps all the children as well because they need to see what it looks like. And when you create a more just society, they need to make sure that they’re holding people in their families and in their neighborhoods that oftentimes look like them accountable and challenging them to create a better society. So yeah, there’s a lot of work to do in a lot of ways that we can do a lot of ways that we can do our homework to try to determine the extent to which we might experience racism and prejudice and racial discrimination. But you know, there’s just some things that we can’t anticipate, but we can still be prepared for it.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break when we come back. More on fighting the school to prison pipeline with Lori Martin. This is a word Will Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about fighting the school to prison pipeline with Lori Martin. One thing that people who support having offices in schools will say is that some schools are dangerous and some children are a danger to themselves and others. What’s your response to that and what’s the better way of keeping students safe?

S2: Yes, I think that we’re still finding that school resource officers are disproportionately found in schools that are majority black and brown. And so we have to unpack that and consider why is that the case? Some people would argues, because there are more, you know, behavioral problems in those schools. And so they’re necessary and others will say that is really just this culture of overpolicing. Black bodies is a library in the classroom and in the schools, and that they wouldn’t be tolerated in communities that were predominantly white. Not that they don’t have issues going on in terms of sexual assault or with drug abuse and other substance abuses. But the idea that you would have law enforcement interacting with it with members of the dominant racial group is just unheard of. Because for much of American history, policing has involved policing black bodies from slave patrols to contemporary times. And so, you know, we just have to consider all those things and to think about how do we address broader issues as it relates to violence in our culture? But also, how do we deal with continuing anti-Black sentiment and how it shows up in our schools even with these school resource officers? And what are some alternatives? What can we do so that we can address challenges that young people may have and meaningful ways that don’t involve connecting them to the criminal justice system?

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S1: School discipline varies from place to place, right? It’s based on race. It’s based on class since we know that discipline is going to be enforced differently from school to school. Is there like a statewide option? Like is it? Can the state lay down rules about what is and is not something or or can a system be set in place where it’s like, look, just because the local cop, you know in the school suggests that the child has to be disciplined? It still has to go through a review board. Is there anything sort of statewide that can be implemented to potentially protect kids from basically a one stop shop of I don’t want to have Daquan in my class. I’m going to send him to officer friendly and officer friendly basically throws day one into the system.

S2: Yes, I think that school policies and procedures are very localized. So the likelihood that you’re going to have, like some uniformity statewide or nationally is not really high. So think about, for example, no child left behind was a federal program that many thought was I’m funded mandate and was in many ways disastrous and trying to have a federal policy about, you know, measuring student success and teacher accountability and things like that. So with these discipline issues, I mean, it might be great to have a review board, maybe within a school that’s, you know, independent made up of community members and parents as well as on school personnel. But I don’t think it’s very likely that you’ll have that statewide. But to your point, you always found it interesting again, coming from New York to Baton Rouge. I would know I would know more about my son’s conduct because he always got my youngest son out there in elementary school. He always got a conduct grade every day, but I wouldn’t know what he learned in math or what he did in science or what the spelling words were. But I always knew what his conduct was every day. And so this focus on like behavior. And, you know, many people even comment, and I’m sure this is not unique to Louisiana or to Baton Rouge. But you know, the similarities in terms of white kids not being able to talk during lunch or in the hallways and having to have their hands behind their back wearing uniforms. And again, some teachers paying more attention to whether they have a belt because there’s there’s shorts or or a skirt has or pants have loops on it as opposed to how they’re really performing in the classroom and what are some creative ways to capture their attention. So they’re interested in whatever the course content is so that, you know, schools have become very punitive and in many ways, not just in some of the big picture issues that we’re talking about, but some of these smaller ways. And then we don’t see this happening again in predominantly white schools or where the parents are more affluent. So once that high school that tells you about that, my son ends up going to the magnet school that ended up being far better a year for than a year one, they didn’t even have to wear uniforms, and the parents were adamant about them not wearing uniforms. And so in that end, those parents were, you know, more more affluent. And they were less diverse than, you know, the other folks in the school district. And that’s not a coincidence. So there’s some race issues, gender issues, class issues and all those things collide as well.

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S1: What would be your top pieces of advice for black parents to keep their kids out of the school to prison pipeline? Assuming that you don’t have the money and resources to homeschool and you’re not in someplace where you can just send them to, you know, the black parochial church school that’s nearby?

S2: Yeah, I think it’s important for parents to remember that their their their child’s first teacher and that that doesn’t end once they, you know, enter preschool or kindergarten. And, you know, some parents have resources so that they can support their children throughout their academic careers. And you know, some have to be honest that they don’t have those, you know, resources but to seek out the resources because there are really great, you know, people in black communities all across the country who are willing to support the development of young black people and their minds and not charge you an arm and a leg for it.

S1: Lori Martin is a sociology professor at Louisiana State University and the author of several books, including Big Box Schools, Race, Education and The Danger of the Wal-Martization of Public Schools in America. Lori Thanks so much for joining us on a work today.

S2: Thank you for having me.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s email is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Jasmine Ellis. Aisha Saluja is the managing producer of podcasts at Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for Audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of Podcasts. It’s late June. Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.