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The Avodah Blog

The School-to-Prison Pipeline

Maggie YatesMaggie Yates, from Spokane, WA, attended Macalester College, where she majored in Anthropology and International Studies. As a New Orleans Corps member, Maggie serves as an Education Advocate at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which uses litigation, education and other forms of advocacy to fight hate and bigotry, and to seek justice for vulnerable members of society.

I was in 10th grade when a classmate brought a gun to school.  It was lunchtime and I was trying to buy a yogurt parfait when, a floor above me, the troubled young man pulled out a pistol in an attempted police-assisted suicide. The SWAT team arrived quickly, a few shots were fired, but officers ultimately restrained the boy. This was the only time during my twelve years of public education that law enforcement directly intervened in my educational setting and used forced to control a student.

Today in New Orleans, however, police force in school has become a common form of discipline. I have been working at the Southern Poverty Law Center for only six months, mainly with students who have been wrongfully suspended, expelled, and arrested in school. In just that time I have heard stories of an eleven-year-old handcuffed for throwing meat in the lunchroom, a high school student arrested for cursing at a teacher, a fifteen-year-old detained in a cage as consequence for a minor class disruption. Most of these students are African-American. Almost all of them are classified as special education. And few of them make the news. These arrests have become the status quo in Louisiana public schools regulated by a “zero tolerance policy.”

This “trend” in education is not isolated to New Orleans, or the South for that matter. I have read similar stories coming out of New York, Philadelphia, and California. Policies that all have the same effect – rather than educating our youth, schools are training them for a life behind bars in a system that has become widely recognized as the school-to-prison pipeline.

About a month ago I was called to a school for one of the African-American students I work with. Although a bright student, something had agitated “Luke” during class. He tried to leave the room in order to calm himself down, but the principal refused to let him out of his sight. In a moment of panicked frustration, Luke hit a locker. Immediately, the school security officer was called and the student was placed in cuffs. I arrived just in time to watch helplessly as Luke was escorted to the police cab parked outside the school office. I then got back into my own car and drove behind the detail officer to the youth detention facility in what was the most vivid manifestation of a student’s push out from school and into the criminal justice system. When did we start treating our African-American students like inmates? Sure, civil rights happened. Sure, black and white kids can share a classroom. But are they both receiving the same education? I fear only some are learning algebra, while the other half are being schooled in life’s injustices.

My white classmate who brought a gun to school was never referred to court as far as I recall. Society recognized his illness and medical professionals intervened. Luke, on the other hand, was placed on house arrest and probation. Society failed to recognize his injuries resulting from systems abuse. We have created and patched and re-surfaced a broken system. And even if we refuse to look, or even if we persist in painting over the cracks, our nation’s impoverished students continue to fall through them.

So much for a free education.

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