The “school-to-prison pipeline” describes the unfortunate trend of kids graduating not out of school, but rather into the criminal justice system.
The pipeline effect is especially evident where large segments of the population are racially, economically and/or socially segregated, and where poverty, abuse and neglect are rampant. To put it bluntly, statistics show that nonwhite and disadvantaged children are at the highest risk of going from school to jail.
Another issue forcing many children from the classroom to the courtroom is the increasingly strict “zero tolerance” codes of conduct that are sweeping the nation’s schools. Hardly a day goes by without a story popping up in the news about a student threatened with harsh disciplinary action or even arrest for things like wearing the wrong shirt, for wearing their afro hair in a natural state or for burping loudly. Add to the equation the thousands of police regularly patrolling schools, and you easily create an atmosphere where students arrive at school every day feeling like suspected criminals, whether or not they have committed a crime.
Last year, the National Center for State Courts released a paper by Dr. Fred Cheesman called Facts About the School-to-Prison Pipeline as part of the 28th National Consortium on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in Courts. Cheesman, a research consultant specializing in juvenile justice, sentencing and problem-solving courts, stated “Class inequalities in incarceration are reflected in the very low educational level of those in prison and jail. The legitimate labor market opportunities for men with no more than a high school education have deteriorated as the prison population has grown, and prisoners themselves are drawn overwhelmingly from the least educated. State prisoners average just a 10th grade education, and about 70 percent have no high school diploma.”
This year, a pilot project in Michigan aims to address the school-to-prison pipeline issue head on. The stance of the program is that education is the key to staying out of the courtroom.
Launched earlier this year, the Kent County Truancy Court pilot program uses education, intervention and access to resources to help students and their families overcome barriers that keep children from attending school.
In an article written by news site MLive’s Monica Scott, Kent County Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Feeney noted, “Our first goal was to change the definition of truancy and chronic absenteeism in Kent County, as not all schools had the same definition. These common definitions allow the court to treat truancy the same in each school district and to track the effectiveness of truancy programs.”
Truancy and dropouts feed the school-to-prison pipeline, and are a chronic problem in Wyoming and Grand Rapids schools. It’s no coincidence—those areas also have disproportionally highly poverty rates. Wyoming Superintendent Thomas Reeder pointed out in Scott’s article, that common reasons for truancy in his district include illness, lack of transportation, dysfunctional households, children having to care for younger siblings and lack of parental control in the home.
Ron Koehler, Assistant Superintendent for Kent Intermediate School District is supportive of the project. “This (pilot) will go a long way toward helping students and their families understand the consequences of their absence from school. For students and their families, two things are very clear. Education is essential to success in today’s marketplace. Attendance is essential to attaining the education necessary to enter the marketplace, and it is impossible to succeed in the world of work if you fail to show up for work on a regular basis.”
Since the launch of the program, chronic absenteeism in the project’s target area has dropped by 1 percent, which the project coordinators take as early proof that their intervention and education plans are working.
Amid pilot programs, investigations, studies and research on the school-to prison-pipeline, one thing has become abundantly clear: barriers to education are the main driver of the issue, and those barriers are strongly tied to race, poverty and discrimination. And until the country is prepared to allow everyone an equal shot at climbing the socioeconomic ladder, the school-to-prison pipeline will be funnelling children from bad situations to seemingly hopeless ones for many years to come.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.