Closing the School-to-Prison Pipeline

If DISD's Mike Miles has a plan for that, then let's give him a chance.

All right, wait, what are we talking about again? The new superintendent of schools and the people he hired and did he follow the right procedures in hiring them and did he pay them too much money and stuff like that. Yeah. That's what I've been talking about, anyway.

But what if he's General George S. Patton marching to Buchenwald? Did Patton follow all the right procedures in assembling his top staff? Did any of those bastards get overpaid? I guess nobody ever asked.

Am I way over the top in drawing a comparison between the Dallas public schools and the camps in Nazi Germany? I am over the top, absolutely. But I would balk at saying I'm way over the top.

Jared Boggess

There are horrors that we have come to accept as normal and routine in our city. We spend — no, I spend — lots of energy and ink worrying about whether the right public relations person has been hired to speak about the horrors. Maybe we all need to back off a bit and look at the full picture.

For thousands of children who enter the Dallas school system in kindergarten, the system functions as a direct pipeline to prison. I am not saying it is the school system's fault that those kids wind up going to prison. But they come in one end as babies. They go out the other end as illiterate convicts.

Dallas is not unique. Since 2007, the Children's Defense Fund has carried on a national campaign of research and activism around what it calls the "Cradle to Prison Pipeline" based on evidence that race and poverty powerfully predict lives of repeated incarceration for children. The CDF says one in three of all black boys born and one in six Hispanic boys born every year will wind up in prison.

Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit engaged in justice and education issues, has examined a handful of Texas school districts including our own to measure systems of school discipline. Our own numbers are staggering.

The statistic that really dumbfounded me was for out-of-school suspensions, what we called "kick-outs" in my day. The vast majority of those suspensions in Dallas, according to the Appleseed study, were for violations of the school code of conduct, which supposedly does not include conduct that poses danger to the student or anyone else.

Of all the districts studied by Appleseed, Dallas had the highest kick-out rate. But that's not what knocked me out. What really floored me was a table showing that some middle schools in Dallas in 2010-2011 had as many kids kicked out as they had enrolled, and one middle school, Rusk, had more students kicked out than it had enrolled. In fact the kick-out rate at Rusk was 123 percent of the enrollment.

How do you even do that? (By kicking out some kids over and over, that's how.)

The amount of money that Dallas either spends or loses because of disciplinary issues is huge — $31 million a year total, according to the study. But of course, if the school system inherits a lot of bad-acting kids, then we can hardly blame the schools for spending money to control them and to protect the other kids and faculty.

But what do we see here in the larger picture? Where do we think these bad kids go? And why are they bad? I have written here about research into so-called oppositional culture, a theory advanced by the late cultural anthropologist John U. Ogbu who studied minorities all over the world. The bottom line would be that some kids come to school pissed off already.

Then what? In fact, so what? What good does it do us to know that if we don't know what to do about it? In fact, what can anybody do about it? What can schools do?

A lot. A huge body of research shows links between disciplinary problems and what is called "school failure." Basically, if a kid gets to the fourth grade unable to read, write and do arithmetic, then watch out. If that kid also comes from the demographic cadres the Children's Defense Fund has measured, then the school system's disciplinary system becomes his pipeline to prison.

A wealth of academic research shows conclusively that the more contact a child has with school disciplinary systems, the more likely it is that the child will wind up in some form of criminal incarceration.

Did I say the school disciplinary system is at fault when the kid winds up in prison? No. But the school disciplinary systems on which we spend these enormous amounts of money do not turn anything around. If anything they package the child better for his fate — give him a nice file folder for judges to review later, maybe teach him how to trade cigarettes for snack food.

I don't know why it happens. You don't know. Nobody has any ultimate answers. But in our city, in schools and neighborhoods most of us never see, glorious crowing little babies are born and something or someone comes along that line of cribs with a big rubber stamp and puts "SEND TO PRISON" on their foreheads.

How is that not a horror? No matter why it happens, no matter whom we blame for it among adults, how is it not a horror for babies to be consigned to hell when they have barely drawn breath?

If we go back to the research that was assembled when George W. Bush was governor of Texas, especially the work on so-called anomalous schools, we see that all of those kids can be taught to read and write by fourth grade, even the ones from the most bitterly impoverished and chaotic backgrounds. And we know from the research since then that teaching them to read and write by fourth grade will have a bigger impact on their behavior and achievement during the balance of their school careers than any other single factor.

Think about it. In our educational system in America, children learn to read from pre-K through third grade. From fourth grade on they read to learn. If they cannot read, they are prisoners in a world without meaning to them. From fourth grade on, they learn how to be prisoners, and most of them get good at it.

I got myself into this whole issue of school outcomes because of a series of conversations I had with clergy and other people in southern Dallas recently concerning the staggering rate of nonemployment in many southern Dallas census tracts. Not unemployment. That's different.

Unemployment is a measurement of people who work for a living but don't have a job right now. The number I was looking at is for what is called "not in the labor force." Those are people who have never had jobs, do not have jobs now and are not looking for jobs. In some of the census tracts around the area where the city wants to build a fancy private golf course on city-owned land, as many as 60 percent of residents are not in the labor force.

The people I spoke with in the community painted a picture of thousands of young people who have left the school system unable to read or write, acquired prison records early and are now virtually unemployable. I haven't come up with hard numbers yet to test that thesis. But if you drive those streets and look at the kids and young adults crowded under shade trees in the summer, you get the picture.

I don't know how many people have seen that picture. Maybe it would be a great shock for people who have never ventured into the city's poor neighborhoods. But I know who has seen it.

Everybody who has anything to do with Dallas Independent School District has seen it. Everybody in the news media. Everybody who works for the city. Everybody in public works contracting. Certainly everybody involved in community leadership in any meaningful way. I have. I think a whole lot of us have seen that picture and know it well.

And we accept it. We take it as a given. Whoever or whatever that grim reaper may be, it comes along the line of cribs and stamps "PRISON" on the babies' heads, and you know what most of us do about it on any given day? We shrug.

So here's my question. Back to new DISD Superintendent Mike Miles. He came in here from Colorado and started shaking things up right away, knocking heads, kicking asses and taking names. I still think he made a lot of mistakes. I still don't get what he's up to. But here is my nightmare. What would I say if he turned to me?

What if he stopped in his tracks, turned, pointed and said, "You there. You got a lot of opinions. What do you think I should do? Just pretty much carry on with things the way they've been going?"

What if he turned again and pointed to the horrors? Imagine him pointing to the tens of thousands of children who for one reason or another are consigned to lives of waste and torment, to say nothing of what they do to the rest of us in the process. What if he turned back to me and said:

"Is this OK with you?"

What do I say? "I think you're paying your P.R. person too much?" Yeah, I think I might wind up being one of those guys Patton ran right over with the tanks.

The other consideration is this. In this community, there are those who have a vested interest in the status quo. If this attempt to do something meaningful with the schools fails, Champagne corks will pop in some very bad places.

I'm not saying Miles didn't screw up. I am saying we may not be watching the right game. We don't want to spend all our time making sure Patton stops at red lights and signals properly for turns. We should want him to get on down that road as fast as possible.

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I would like the school to prison pipeline expanded - especially for Harvard MBAs who have screwed up this economy so badly.



Mile's wouldn't ask you "what would you have me do?" because he knows this isn't a school district problem but a societal problem and there are no answers forthcoming. There can be incremental improvements in giving these kids additional resources at earlier ages (DISD just started their first full day PreK program last year.  It's under funded and under staffed but at least it exists). But poverty and language barriers are driving the bus of the student achievement gap...not ineffective teachers.  I asked Lew Blackburn last year to take a look at the revolving door of school suspensions.   The kids that have the most problems are moved for 6 weeks to an alternative campus that provides them with counselors and helps them catch up on missed work and gives them some needed support and just about the time the kids are beginning to turn the corner they go right back into their "home" school - only to  act out again and return to the alternative campus to start the process all over again.  I suggested that the kids be moved to the alternative campus for the remainder of the school year for major discipline problems.  Lew pushed back saying that the kids "need to be with their buddies and that it would be cruel to take them out of their home school for so long...six weeks is enough".  No Lew, no it isn't.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

Jim, what is the role of the parents with these disciplinary problems?  Can we expect DISD to teach and instill socially acceptable behavior into children that were not taught this by their parents?  There are constant references to "it takes a village to raise a child."  Well, it looks like some of the villagers are not doing their job and living up to their repsonsibilities.

As far as the children and young adults not in the labor force, exactly whose responsibility is this?  Is it the parents for not instilling a work ethic into their children?  Is it a cultural framework that calls being productive and working hard "being white"?

At some point Jim, each and every person has to take personal responsibility for their situation and condition; and, take whatever reasonable steps are needed to improve their situation, socially and economically.  Just ask an AA member about responsibility.

Sure there are a number of people who are given a raw deal in life, especially the conditions into which they are born.  However, it does not mean that you have to accept this raw deal.  You can change your life.

I am grateful for a number of things that had a profound impact on my own life.  One is my grandfather immigrating to this country.  The other is my grandfather making my father learn English.


I don't know of anyone that has changed something as big and lethargic as DISD without upsetting people.  Lots of people.  Change is scary.  Period.  Status quo...feels so safe.  Miles has made some HUGE mistakes.  I'd be all for getting the pitchfork out, but 10% of DISD grads are college ready..  Sitting around complaining about the fireman's tactics doesn't really help with the fire.  Schutze has the right frame of mind.


You nailed it with "there are those who have a vested interest in the status quo."  And if you want to find them, attend any school board meeting and observe who is talking about the needs of kids and who is talking about the desires of adults.


The other kick-out is the Truancy Courts.   They bring in close to
$10million a year for Dallas County,  fines and costs,  from those least
able to afford it.  And they're completely beneath anybody's radar.
has a typical 15 year old who won't get up and go to school.  She's
tried everything,  taken him to counseling,  to every Dr the school
suggests,  pleaded with the school to work with her.  DISD keeps filing
on him,  and,  as she's the parent,  files on her.  $800 per
appearance.  She works as a cleaning lady.  Jr. refused to come to Court
one morning,  Judge calls to tell him to get down there.  He hangs up.
I noted,  if the Judge can't make Jr. do something,  why does he find
Mama guilty for having the same problem.

There's no limit
on the number of cases DISD can file.  After a half dozen Mama has
choices,   she can move to Richardson,  or she can help Jr. drop out.
Again,  they don't improve attendance.  They do force borderline kids to leave school.  Mission Accomplished.


If we had a Disconnect Award, you would be the grand winner, Schutze. Miles is a Broadie. Their approach (pay big bucks for a supt who then hires layers and layers of high paid cronies while treating teachers as day labor) simply hasn't work anywhere. Do your research.

Miles' approach has teachers up in arms because it's pedagogically weak. Miles portrays himself as some kind of wunderkind when his own tiny little high schools in Colorado were as weak as Dallas high schools after years of his marching around firing teachers and inspiring terror. His approach to managing teachers is outdated and ineffective.

Your statements correlating kids who are suspended with those who appear in the justice system is as weak as saying people who have consistent contact with police are more frequently in the justice system as offenders and it's the police officers' fault.

Broadies starve the classroom, create chaos, and then move on as the predators they are. Your column blames teachers, who have no control over hiring or resources, on the unemployment and crime rate in South Dallas. It's a leap in logic that is beyond ridiculous.

Why not blame police officers for the crime rate in South Dallas (oh, yeah, that's been tried, also) or blame store owners for the crime rate or blame phases of the moon. Could it be the parents and community are socializing their children into a culture whose norms set them up for total failure? Could the oppositional behavior noted by the sociologist be the basis for a refusal to do what is necessary to enter the mainstream economy?

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

I, for one, don't think you're over the top in comparing the city's school system to the systematic destruction of minorities by the Nazis.


@Myrna.Minkoff-Katz Visit a Dallas school, anywhere in the city, and come back and report on what you actually see. Most kids are learning in a productive environment. The chaos caused by the dysfunction at Ross Avenue is for the most part held at bay.