The Incarceration of Human Capital: The School to Prison Pipeline | Diane Ketelle
As a white, middle class, single mother, there was never a time during my son’s childhood when I worried that his behavior would result in incarceration. While building a life for us did not come easily, the burden borne by the mothers of African American, Latino, Native American and South East Asian youth in the school to prison pipeline overshadows any challenges I faced raising my son. From a young age Lucas had access to multiple forms of capital: cultural, aspirational, linguistic, familial, social, and navigational. This web of capital and privilege made it possible for him to bypass the trauma and barriers placed upon young boys and men of color that have become an almost seamless path to incarceration. How our schools became the conduit for this pipeline demonstrates multiple levels of social and economic failure.
In my role as a writing instructor from 2008-2011 at San Quentin State Prison in Marin County, California, introduced me to the lives of young and old men as they spread their rage, frustration and indignation across pages. There were also times that the most tender words imaginable and loving ideas possible flooded those pages as well. In 2011, I taught violent male offenders in weekly life writing and reading class at the Alameda County Juvenile Hall. Earlier in my career as public school teacher I had been prepared as a Reading Recovery teacher which profoundly shaped my understanding of how reading and writing growth occur. My former experience informed how I assessed my student’s needs while working to keep the curriculum responsive to their needs and relevant to their interests. Currently, I am teaching a life writing class at Ralph Bunch Alternative Academy, part of the Oakland Unified School District. That class is comprised of students who have been expelled or failed out of comprehensive high schools in the district.
Through my varied experiences teaching in correctional and alternative settings, I have found much of the writing produced to be evocative and transformational. The efforts of my students to restory their lives drew my attention to the need to create a new narrative around prisons and the pipeline to prison in our society and the need to work to create social justice instead of imprisonment.
Many public schools have become pathways to incarceration rather than opportunities to educate and empower. The economic reality of the school to prison pipeline has extraordinary implications for school leaders, as it affects everything from what we teach to how we build community in our classrooms. We need to alter how we deal with conflicts within and among students, how we build coalitions and what demands and values we identify as central to fight for social justice. The school to prison pipeline undermines the possibility for our country to truly become great because of the way we treat a certain demographic in our human capital.
The way school leaders and teachers respond to the behaviors children bring to school is one way the pipeline is fed. It is important to recognize the role that harsh discipline policies play is sustaining disparities in incarceration. California leads the way in suspensions and expulsions from public schools. In 2009-2010, California school districts expelled roughly 21,000 students and handed out more than 75,000 suspensions. In a recent study from the Council of State Governments, California’s annual suspension rate exceeds the national average.
Zero-tolerance policies are another way the pipeline is perpetuated. Such policies impose severe discipline on students without regard to individual circumstances. Even the American Bar Association has condemned zero-tolerance policies as inherently unjust. There is no evidence that zero-tolerance policies make schools safer or in any way improve student behavior. On the contrary, research suggests that the overuse of suspensions and expulsions may actually increase the likelihood of later criminal misconduct.
Decker Walker and Jonas Soltis, esteemed scholars in the area of curriculum studies, note, “Even one mismatch or denial of opportunity for a person to grow in one direction rather than another would be a moral transgression against an individual that might change a whole life.” Advocating for and implementing practices that guard against such moral transgressions is imperative to ending the school to prison pipeline. Empowering learners to take responsibility for their learning while scaffolding positive social interaction in a democratic learning environment should be the sort of schooling experience every school age child in America can access.