Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Awareness, Public Dialogue, and Action (Part 1)

Miya Fowler

By Miya Fowler

On Saturday, April 2, 2016, five college students and their professor visited the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center on Leeds Avenue. Upon returning to class to share their experiences with the rest of the students, undergraduate Zac McFarlane commented, “They made me realize that what we’re doing out here in this class will be more impactful than what I thought it would be.”

The class that McFarlane was referring to is “Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” a Spring 2016 African American Studies special topics course taught by Dr. Ade Ofunniyin at the College of Charleston. The aim of the course was to contextualize the school-to-prison pipeline and engage students in current discourse surrounding the pipeline while encouraging students’ efforts toward activism.

The school-to-prison pipeline “refers to the policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems,” reflecting “the prioritization of incarceration over education.”

Undergraduate Katie Pinner noted that seventy-five percent of the youth being housed at the detention center at the time of their visit were there for school behavioral infractions. That is because the Disturbing Schools Law allows children to be arrested for disruptive classroom behavior, such as talking back to teachers, having their cell phones out in class, or refusing to comply with teacher’s orders. Simply put, any act of defiance could place a child in police custody.

The highly publicized arrests of two Black female students at Spring Valley High School are case in point of the Disturbing Schools Law at work. The incident also demonstrated the detriment of having resource offices who are untrained in childhood education, child psychology, and cultural sensitivity in our nation’s schools. Furthermore, the pipeline disproportionately affects children of color. Resource officers are more likely to be placed in schools with populations that are over fifty percent black. The school-to-prison pipeline reflects a fundamental flaw in the nation’s education system.

As Angela Davis maintains in her informative book, ‘Are Prisons Obsolete?’, “When children attend schools that place a greater value on discipline and security than on knowledge and intellectual development, they are attending prep schools for prison.”

In an effort to increase campus and community awareness and stimulate dialogue about the school-to-prison pipeline, the students enrolled in the course organized a discussion held on Thursday, April 21. The event featured an introduction by Dr. Ofunniyin, two videos to provide background information on the school-to-prison pipeline and a program dedicated to combating its effects on schoolchildren, an interactive exercise with real-life accounts of school arrests, and remarks from Juvenile Arbitration Director Christine Kinney and State Senator Margie Bright Matthews.

Kinney is the director of a diversion program that tries to show children who have incurred charges the reality of adult incarceration. The program also tries to dismiss charges if the students do not have a long history with the juvenile justice system. According to Kinney, the program is comprised of about sixty percent black males, but many of the students are middle school girls. With a three person staff, volunteers, and a caseload averaging 150, the program has a ten percent recidivism rate. Senator Matthews, who was an educator prior to going to law school and entering politics, expressed her dismay at the state’s complacency with the school-to-prison pipeline.

According to Senator Matthews, South Carolina spends over $16,000 per child on incarceration, while spending only $11,000 per child on education; although estimates from other sources have placed incarceration funding at as high as $150,000 per child and education funding at as low as $9,000 per child. Senator Matthews noted the racialized nature of the pipeline, sharing that only 4.8% of white students are affected by it. She highlighted how the Disturbing Schools law takes children into the pipeline, and how socio-economic status, in addition to race, plays a role in keeping children in the pipeline. Once a child has Disturbing Schools on their record, any charges after that will automatically make their bond higher, and most parents cannot afford lawyers to fight their children’s cases in court.

While the event succeeded at encouraging dialogue among those in attendance, it fell short of a necessary component of dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline – coming up with solutions and ways to dismantle. Instead, the discussion focused on what the issue is, and while knowing the issue is valuable, knowledge without action is futile.

At what point will we stop discussing the pipeline and eliminate it? One might feel that Kinney’s diversion program is a solution, but the fact remains that children are already in the pipeline when they arrive at the program. Furthermore, for all the facts and opinions that Senator Matthews provided regarding the school-to-prison pipeline and flaws in the education system, she did not mention any policy changes happening in South Carolina that could disrupt the pipeline. Thus, my suggestion here is that we move beyond talking endlessly about what is wrong and begin creating the changes that we want to see. First and foremost, we need to advocate for either a change in or reversal of the Disturbing Schools Law. Efforts at dismantling are useless if the law that created and perpetuates the pipeline remains in place.

Part 2 of ‘Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Awareness, Public Dialogue, and Action’ can be read here

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