By Hannibal B. Johnson
“When schools are suspending students at high rates, we are, in fact, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. [African American students] are significantly more likely to be suspended than students of another race.”
Dr. Keith Ballard, Former Superintendent, Tulsa Public Schools
The Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (“USCCR”) hosted public hearings in 2015 on the “school-to-prison pipeline.” School administrators, teachers, legal professionals, nonprofit organizations, academics, and advocates offered testimony. USCCR sought to determine the extent to which the application of school disciplinary and juvenile justice policies in Oklahoma discriminatorily impact students on the basis of race, color, and/or sex.
The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy defines the school-to-prison pipeline as “a social phenomenon where legal policies, education policies, and social constructs funnel struggling children from schools to jails and prisons.” Contributing factors to the school-to-prison pipeline include: (i) poverty; (ii) implicit bias; (iii) school policies (e.g., zero-tolerance; overemphasis on testing); (iv) ineffective strategies for meeting the needs of students with disabilities; and (iv) the failure to address trauma-related issues tied to the destruction of traditional Native American cultures.
Schools too often problematize students of color and exclude them. The disproportionate punishment of students of color in general, and young black males in particular, appears strikingly evident in both the Tulsa and Oklahoma City school districts, raising concerns about fairness and justice.
Nationally, schools suspend and expel three times more black primary and secondary school students than white students. American Indian and Native Alaskan students comprise less than 1% of the student population, yet account for 2% of out-of-school suspensions and 3% of expulsions. Others students of color also experience disproportionate disciplinary sanctions. Imbalances in school discipline begin as early as pre-K.
These early discrepancies in how schools mete out punishment seed down-the-line hardships for disciplined students and social problems for communities. The staggering and foreseeable consequences borne by suspended and expelled students include: learning deficits; an enhanced risk of becoming high school dropouts; and a predisposition toward criminality.
Due in part to the pipeline, consignment to confinement now seems a mathematical probability for boys of color. “C” for convict has become the twenty-first-century scarlet letter. Life in lock-up adversely affects individual and family prospects across generations.
Dr. Paul Ketchum, Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Oklahoma, noted that the race of the offender more profoundly influences the severity of juvenile court referrals, expulsions, and school-based arrests than does the offense itself. Disproportionate minority contact with “the system” lacks a basis in empirical behavioral differences between white and nonwhite adolescents, and leaves boys of color academically delayed, disinterested, and virtually abandoned by educators. They drop out, not just from school, but from productive life, a vicious cycle begun.
For African Americans, the school-to-prison pipeline represents just one facet of “the New Jim Crow”: a latticework of laws, policies, and practices that conspire to ensnare thousands of black men in the system’s vortex. That entanglement leads inexorably to incarceration and, with it, a pariah-like, lifelong status. This near-death spiral ensnares children, families, and communities in a web of poverty and privation that saps our nation’s productivity and prosperity.
The USCCR recommended: (i) a national study on the impact of school funding on race/color-based gaps in educational outcomes; (ii) uniform licensing requirements to ensure that all law enforcement officers working in schools are properly trained and equipped to respond in an age-appropriate manner; (iii) state-imposed mandatory disciplinary policy reforms for schools with significant disparities in disciplinary actions on the basis of race, color, or disability (e.g., cultural competence/implicit bias training); and (iv) school district-initiated measures to ensure that students receive a quality educational experience, even if in the context of an alternative schooling arrangement.
Disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline is both imperative and urgent. We must act with dispatch and decisiveness to reimagine discipline in Oklahoma public schools.