'School-to-prison pipeline' faces new scrutiny with data on race and discipline
Source: The Guardian
Just a few hours before a white police officer tossed a black female student across a classroom floor, stirring outrage in South Carolina and across the nation, a newsletter for concerned black parents in the school district went out with a warning. It was titled: “School to Prison Pipeline”.
“Many of our children have become victims of this process,” the Richland Two Black Parents Association (RTBPA) wrote on Monday morning. The group’s organizers had planned a forum to discuss the problem, but massive statewide floods postponed it. For now, the newsletter said, just try to make it through October.
“This is a critical time of the year for attendance in schools,” the letter read. “This is where we usually see an uptick in the number of students being expelled or suspended. Please be mindful of this and pay close attention. If there are parents who are beginning to experience any unusual activity around suspension and expulsions please let us know.”
The letter might seem prescient, in hindsight. But one of the group’s founders said that was not so; it was just an example of how heavily the issue of school discipline weighed on the minds of black parents in the years and months leading up to the incident on Monday. That was when Ben Fields, a sheriff’s deputy working as a school resource officer, was recorded wrenching a student from her seat and throwing her to the floor.
The Richland County sheriff swiftly fired him, and a federal investigation headed by the Department of Justice and FBI is under way.
“This is something we’ve been working on here for a long time,” said Stephen Gilchrist, a leader in the RTBPA. “We organized because we noticed the white parents in the district were getting all the goodies, so to speak. And we also had some real concerns about the punishment being handed out to black students. Have you heard about Blythewood?”
He was referring to Blythewood Academy, the alternative school for students in Richland District Two who have been deemed, in various ways, no longer teachable. Almost two-thirds of the Richland district’s students are black, and a quarter are white. But Gilchrist contends the percentages at Blythewood are off the chart:
“Ninety-nine percent black,” he said. “And, more specifically, 98% black boys.”
The school district says it does not track expulsions by race. The administration also declined the Guardian’s request to interview Perry Mills, the academy’s principal. But recent nationwide studies show that the RTBPA’s concerns are on the mark, and that – if anything – the situation is worse around the country than in Richland District Two.
Data gathered by the National Center for Education Statistics, for instance, shows that from 1999 to 2007, the percentage of white students expelled from school dropped from 1.8% to 1.1%. During those same years, the percentage of expelled black students rose from 6.5% to 10.3%.
Suspension rates are similarly disproportional. According to a study by the US Department of Education in 2014, 5% of white students have been suspended, compared with 16% of black students.
Those numbers may seem abstract, in the cool language of agency reports. But the effect becomes more practical when viewed geographically. In South Carolina’s Midlands area, anyone with a free afternoon could walk from one end of the discipline spectrum to the other.
In the school year ending in 2014, Richland District Two was the largest school system in the Midlands, with about 26,000 students. The second-largest, Lexington District One, was almost the same size, with 24,000 students. That year Richland expelled 110 students, and Lexington expelled less than half as many, 54.
The difference between the two districts: Richland is mostly black, and Lexington is mostly white.
According to civil rights advocates, a Richland-to-Lexington walking tour would reveal a cascade of effects of one district turning away twice as many students as the other: disparity in education, in the workforce, in juvenile detention and jail population. That’s the school-to-prison pipeline that the Richland Two Black Parents Association warned about in its newsletter.
Across the southern states, police were once seen as welcome protectors by black students. They were first introduced in the 1950s after the supreme court’s decision in the Brown v Board of Education case ended segregation. Federal, state and local governments dispatched officers to guard black students and smooth the transition to integration.
But that started to change about a decade and a half ago, according to Kaitlin Banner, an attorney with a civil rights group called the Advancement Project.
“There was a perceived safety threat, after Columbine,” she said recently, referring to the 1999 mass school shooting. “And then again after Newtown.”
Most school shootings are perpetrated by white students, she said, but “the weight of police presence falls disproportionately on students of color. The overarching problem is that schools are not a place for police. Young people are going to do what young people do. They shouldn’t be arrested for it.”
That’s where administrators in Richland District Two seem – despite the now-infamous classroom video – to be ahead of many other school districts around the country. A year ago, at the prodding of the RTBPA, they formed a 53-member taskforce of police officers, community leaders, pastors, and parents, to examine the question of why so many black children were being disciplined so much more harshly than white students. And they formed a three-tier system of describing classroom offenses, and how teachers and officers should respond.
Level One infractions include non-threatening misbehavior like cheating, truancy, cursing and other common infractions. Discipline for first-time offenses includes Saturday detention and meetings with parents.
Level Two offenses involve more dangerous behavior like fighting, possession of drug paraphernalia, theft and vandalism. Punishments range from removal from class all the way up to expulsion.
Level Three offenses include criminal action: bringing weapons to school, assault and battery, drug use and sexual offenses. Punishments can include criminal prosecution.
The problem, according to Banner, the civil rights attorney, is that those lines get blurry once a police officer steps into a classroom. A case can escalate from routine, teenage Level One behavior – like looking at a cellphone, as the Richland student in the video allegedly did – to a violent, desk-flipping arrest.
Fixing it, Banner said, is going to require tearing down and rebuilding the way schools are run.
“There are structural problems,” she said. “In schools where there are more students of color, we see less money spent on preventative measures like counselors and nurses and librarians – and more money spent on police.”