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.

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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