Published on
The Boston Globe

Problem Students in Pipeline to Prison

Daniel G. Meyer

A 13-year-old girl was handcuffed and arrested at Brockton High School last June for wearing a T-shirt. The T-shirt, which she was asked by school officials to remove, bore the image of her ex-boyfriend, 14-year-old Marvin Constant, who had recently been killed in a Boston area shooting. The girl refused to remove the memorial shirt and was arrested for "causing a disturbance."

In Texas, 14-year-old high school freshman, Shaquanda Cotton, was sentenced to seven years in prison. Her crime was pushing a hall monitor out of the way when she was stopped from entering a school building. The official charge was "assault on a public servant."While extreme, these cases are not unusual. In Massachusetts and across the country, an increasing number of incidents that traditionally have been handled in schools by trips to the principal's office are being dealt with by law enforcement officials and judges in the juvenile justice system. Countless school children, particularly children of color in poverty-stricken zip codes, are being pushed out of schools and into juvenile correctional facilities for minor misconduct.

A variety of overzealous disciplinary measures, including a mandatory "zero-tolerance" policy, are removing children as early as elementary school from mainstream educational environments and funneling them into a one-way pipeline to prison. This "school-to-prison pipeline" begins in the nation's neglected and under-resourced public education system and flows directly into the country's expansive ocean of overcrowded, privatized, profit-producing prisons.

America's Promise Alliance released a report in April that said that 17 of the nation's 50 largest cities have high school graduation rates of lower than 50 percent. Boston barely boasted a graduation rate of 57 percent, placing it 27th among the 50 cities. It is no surprise that urban public high schools ranked lower in graduation rates than their suburban counterparts.

When school funding is based on student test performance, lack of resources creates heinous incentives for school officials to funnel out "problem" students believed likely to drag down a school's scores. This bottom line business is a convenient method of concealing schools' educational deficiencies, but it does little to address the systemic problem of poor performance.

Racial disproportion runs through every level of the system. A black male born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime compared with a white male's 1 in 17 chance. Incarceration rates are directly correlated with school performance. Children of color are more likely to be suspended or expelled than their Caucasian classmates. More than 70 percent of the prison population in Massachusetts is functionally illiterate. The cycle begins early and is hard to break. A black child is nine times more likely to have an incarcerated parent, and children with imprisoned parents far more likely to be imprisoned themselves.

Abraham Lincoln wrote that "the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present." There remains a deeply ingrained punitive paradigm in the psyche of the American criminal justice system. Our overzealous "get tough on crime" philosophy is totally inadequate to the stormy present. Americans are far more likely to be victimized by a violent assault, rape, murder, or robbery than our European counterparts who incarcerate relatively tiny percentages of the population. There, prison is viewed as a fundamentally "criminogenic" institution that creates more crime than it deters.

Prisoners are a major fiscal burden on the rest of society. It costs Massachusetts $43,000 a year to keep an inmate behind bars. States are spending on average more than three times as much per prisoner as per public school pupil. Is it more valuable to imprison than to teach? The majority of suspended students and juveniles in detention did not commit violent offenses. Is society safer with nonviolent criminals in jail or in school?

Relying on incarceration as the sole solution to crime is ineffective. Academic achievement is the leading determining factor for delinquency. Improving school performance will be an effective strategy for reducing chronic court involvement.

We have the resources. It is not a question of funds but rather a question of will. Will Massachusetts be first to say enough and dam the flow of the school-to-prison pipeline?

Daniel G. Meyer is a volunteer at the Youth Advocacy Project at the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company

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