Closing the School-to-Prison Pipeline

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.

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.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze