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Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Remove Officers from Schools

A Q&A with Mark Warren by Stephen Abbott. This excerpt appeared originally on Organizing Engagement.

Register for our Fight for Police-Free Schools virtual event, a conversation with leading organizers in educational justice about the police-free schools movement moderated by Mark Warren, to be held on August 5, 2020.

Mark Warren

Mark Warren is a professor of public policy and public affairs at the University of Massachusetts Boston’s McCormack Graduate School. Warren studies how broad-based alliances, grassroots organizing, and multiracial political action can advance social and educational justice in American communities and schools. He is the author of several books, including Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice and Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy, and he is co-author, with Karen Mapp (@karen_mapp), of A Match on Dry Grass: Community Organizing as a Catalyst for School Reform, which describes the results of a large-scale study of the role community organizing plays in school reform. Warren is also a co-founder of the Urban Research-Based Action Network, and he is committed to using scholarly research to promote greater equity in public policy, democratic practice, and educational decision-making. His most recent book, written in collaboration with the journalist David Goodman (@davidgoodmanvt) and the book’s many contributors, is Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! Voices from the Frontlines of the Educational Justice Movement.


SA: Many Americans are simply unaware that there’s a school-to-prison pipeline in American public education because, as you mentioned, their children have not experienced abusive school-discipline practices or they have not seen first-hand the resulting long-term harm that can result from systemic school pushout. What is the school-to-prison pipeline, how does it work, and why does it urgently need to be dismantled?

MRW: The school-to-prison pipeline refers to a systemic problem that disproportionately affects students in low-income communities and communities of color. It often begins with zero-tolerance discipline, where children, and particularly black and brown children, are suspended and often expelled for minor behavioral infractions. Once they’re expelled, they’re not in school learning, and they’re often out on the streets where they get caught up in the juvenile criminal-justice system—that’s the pipeline. And I’m not talking about small numbers of children and youth. Take Texas, for example. In that one state, 75% of all black children have been suspended from high school, as one recent study showed. Nationally, Black children are three times more likely to be suspended than white children.

If a student is suspended, and eventually drops out or is pushed out of school, these experiences often have devastating lifelong effects on young people. If you are a young black man without a high school degree, you are highly likely to end up in the criminal justice system. In fact, another study showed that nearly 70% of all black men without a high school degree end up in prison at one point in their lives. That’s just a devastating number. Or we could look at it in terms of college completion rates. Even in a city like Boston, which claims to have one of the best big-city public education systems, a child entering one of the city’s non-exam high schools today has about a 12% chance of graduating from high school and then completing college within six or seven years. Just over half will graduate from high school. Of that number only half will even start college, and of that number only half will actually finish.

Think about that number: 12%. If you’re poor, if you’re a black or brown child, if you’re in an underfunded school, our public education system is failing you. It just is. It’s reinforcing the profound inequities that exist in our society. These children are most likely to remain in poverty or end up in the prison system.

Maybe ten years ago, most Americans—and even most people in the education field—had never heard the term “school-to-prison pipeline.” It turns out that the first people who started calling out the school-to-prison pipeline, and who gave it a name, were black and brown parents and students in communities across the country. I’ve been down to the Mississippi delta, and I went to Holmes County, which is very poor—it’s one of the poorest counties in the country—and I visited a local organization that’s connected to Southern Echo (@SouEcho), a community-organizing group. In Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out!, Joyce Parker wrote about this particular example.

In 1998, more than 20 years ago now, organizers with Citizens for Quality Education in Holmes County noticed that a growing number of black children were out in the streets during school time. They started asking them, “Why aren’t you in school?” The kids told them they had been suspended for talking back to a teacher or other minor things. There was one case in which black kids on a school bus were throwing peanuts at each other, and one of the peanuts hit the back of the white school-bus driver, who then drove the bus directly to the police station. Five black boys were arrested for assault, and although the charges were eventually dropped, they had to drop out of school—for throwing peanuts around on a bus.

So the people who really pointed it out first, who got it into the public discourse, and who really drove the movement to build understanding and end zero-tolerance were the people who had been most impacted by the systemic abuses. They were the first to talk about the “school-to-jail” track, as they first called the school-to-prison pipeline. After they gave it a name and drew attention to it, researchers started to study the effects of zero tolerance and talk about the racial disproportionality, and the legal community started to address the violations of civil rights associated with the school-to-prison pipeline. Largely because of this movement, we’ve seen improvements in recent years. Suspension rates have declined in a lot of cities and districts, which is a great thing.

But a new feature of the problem has emerged that, once again, was first called out by the students and parents who were most directly affected: it’s the widespread presence of police in schools. During the 1990s, when schools were moving to adopt zero-tolerance policies that targeted minor misbehaviors and that produced dramatic increases in suspension rates, we also began to see a significant increase in the presence of armed police and security officers in schools.

Again, this police presence is not occurring, for the most part, in our affluent suburbs; it’s being seen in our inner-city and low-income schools. Which is ironic because when a tragedy happens, like what happened at the high school in Parkland, that results in calls for more police officers in schools, the additional police end up in schools located in low-income communities of color, which is not where mass shootings are happening.

Having police officers in schools is a huge issue. Once again, a lot of people don’t know just how many police there are in our schools today, or what it costs to have officers in schools, which is money that could be invested in more teachers and social services. There are 1.6 million children in public schools in the United States with at least one law-enforcement officer and no counselors, and the numbers are similar for students in schools with police officers but no nurses.

I was in Chicago, for example, and people don’t realize that there have been police substations located inside of high schools for many years. There are also metal detectors, and these armed police officers are sometimes arresting and booking children right in school in front of their peers and teachers.

In Los Angeles, police officers used to stand outside of the schools and ticket students for coming in late. I’m not saying that I think students should be late to school, but sometimes the buses aren’t running on time or older students have to be at home a little while longer to take care of a younger sibling—things happen and students arrive late to school for reasons that may be entirely outside of their control. Instead of welcoming them in, these students were being ticketed. Many of them can’t afford to pay the $100 tickets, so the tickets pile up, of course, then they end up in violation of court orders to pay the fines, and then the police come in and arrest them for failure to pay the fine, and they end up in the juvenile justice system. This is another way the school-to-prison pipeline works.

As we discussed, a lot of people don’t understand that these issues and processes are widespread in our education system. The school-to-prison pipeline is not just pushing students out of school, onto the street, and into the criminal justice system, but it also includes the large numbers of police officers in schools who are criminalizing, and sometimes abusing, our young people. Now the call, in the national educational-justice movement, is not just to end zero-tolerance, but also to end the regular presence of police in schools, and then use those funds to invest in counselors, nurses, teachers, and restorative-justice programs that can become alternatives to harsh discipline and pushout.

We should keep in mind that the rise of zero-tolerance and the presence of armed police in our schools started in the 1980s, and it became much more severe in the 1990s and into the early 2000s because it was part of the “three strikes” policies being implemented in the larger criminal-justice system—policies that were based on a profoundly distorted stereotype of black boys and men, particularly the black “superpredator,” a term popularized by the criminologist John DiIulio in a widely read Weekly Standard article. [EDITORIAL NOTE: Dilulio later admitted that his superpredator theory was wrong.]

Prejudice and stereotypes underpin the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s the stereotypes of young black men, and young brown men, that portray them as criminals, as violent, as dangers to our society, such as the widespread depictions we see in the media and in film. These prejudices and stereotypes translate into real-world problems. The larger proportion of our teaching force is white and female, for example, even in our communities of color. And very young boys of color, by the time they’re in third or fourth grade, are often seen as threatening by white teachers. The stereotype of the threatening black boy, even in grades two and three, is there, while young black boys, as early as preschool, who are rambunctious or who won’t sit still in a chair are seen as troublemakers. Yet the same behaviors by young white boys in suburban communities are just seen as harmlessly rambunctious or normal—they are not seen as troublemakers who need to be disciplined and controlled from a very early age.

We are actually seeing a high proportion of suspensions in preschool now—if you can believe that—and newer reports are showing that the school-to-prison pipeline actually starts in preschool, with children in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten being suspended from school for normal childhood behavior.

The first essay in our book is by Zakiya Sankara-Jabar (@ZakiyaChinyere), and she starts off by telling the story of her African American son, Amir, who was suspended and eventually expelled from a series of preschools, and how she came to understand, by talking with other black parents and looking into the research, that this wasn’t just her child’s experience, but it was a common experience for black boys everywhere. She became a racial-justice organizer and helped found a group in Dayton, Ohio, called Racial Justice NOW! (@RacialJsticeNow). In her essay, she talks about how she and other parents started to organize and eventually won a moratorium on suspensions for children in pre-kindergarten through third grade in Dayton Public Schools.

SA: In your view, how has the rise of mass protests against police killings affected the educational justice movement

MRW: First of all, people have to realize that these protests did not come out of nowhere. Years of organizing by groups in the educational justice movement and other movements laid the groundwork for the recent upsurge in protest. In particular, the police-free-schools movement has been building for many years, often led by young people involved in the kind of youth-organizing groups discussed in Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out!, and coordinated by the Alliance for Educational Justice and other networks. This movement won victories to defund school policing in Minneapolis, Denver, Oakland, Portland, and other cities. In fact, almost all of the cities that achieved recent victories were cities in which young people had been organizing for police-free schools for years.

More broadly, since the educational justice movement is fundamentally a racial-justice movement that has increasingly taken an intersectional approach, the movement appreciates and understands the interconnections between the various forms of racial oppression that black people and people of color face. The movement is clear that we cannot simply go back to public education as it has been traditionally defined. Our public education system has been profoundly shaped by white supremacy, and we need more radical transformations to create an antiracist and liberatory education for black children and children of color. Despite the ravages of COVID-19, this agenda makes the current period an exciting opportunity for the educational justice movement and its allies.


Read more at Organizing Engagement.