Schools Are NOT a Pipeline to Prison: We Cannot Blame Schools, School Leaders and Teachers for the Failures of National Policies.

A few weeks after the de Blasio election I drifted down to the transition tent on Canal Street. The Transition Team was sponsoring a series of panels of community members and experts recommending directions for the newly elected administration. The education panel was chaired by an NAACP leader and the panel members included a well-known religious leader and other activists from the Harlem community. As the discussion moved from topic to topic one of the panelists bemoaned the “school to prison pipeline” and quoted a statistic: the staggering number of Afro-American males suspended from school in kindergarten. I was sitting next to a high ranking Department of Education official, I turned to him with a querulous look, he tapped into his hand-held device and shook his head, absolutely not; the assertion had no basis in reality. . It was accepted by the panelists and the audience. The suspension polices in schools are a pipeline to prison.

The same students who are suspended are the students who drop out of school and end up in prison; if we halted or sharply limited suspensions would we halt dropouts and incarcerations? Neighborhoods with high poverty risk load factors, neighborhoods with high crime rates include schools that are burdened with the pathologies of the neighborhood that surrounds the schools. We cannot single out schools as the “cause” of incarceration rates. As teachers we have the obligation to protect students from the mean streets and too keep the culture of the streets outside of school buildings.

We need rules and regulations to set a standard for behavior in schools.

New York City has a detailed discipline code, a list of infractions and punishments that are reviewed and revised every few years, The current code, called the City-Wide Behavioral Expectations to Support Student Learning (April 2015) is is a 32-page guide to student discipline. The behavioral infractions are grouped into five levels from Uncooperative/Non-Compliant Behavior up to the most serious level, Seriously Dangerous or Violent Behavior.

The Code emphasizes guidance interventions; “restorative approaches” and recommends a series of activities: collaborative negotiation, peer mediation and formal restorative conferences.

One of the most common, and controversial reasons for disciplinary actions are,

Defying or disobeying the lawful authority of school personnel in a way that substantially disrupts the educational process and/or poses a danger to a school community …

The intervention, depending on the severity and frequency of the infraction can be: admonishment, conferences, reprimand, parent conference, in-school disciplinary action, removal from classroom, principal suspension (1-5 days), superintendent’s suspension (30-90 days), superintendent’s suspension (one year) and expulsion (over 17 and extremely rare).

All actions can be appealed and students are entitled to legal representation at the superintendent level suspensions.

Every incident in a school must be entered into the Online Occurrence Reporting System (OORS) in detail, the reports are tracked and schools with persistent discipline issues develop Incident Reduction Plans that are closely monitored by the Department.

In spite of the detailed lists of infractions, in spite of the attempts to view responses to infractions as guidance before punishment the school to prison canard is alive and well.

The NYCLU website writes,

The School to Prison Pipeline is a nationwide system of local, state and federal education and public safety policies that pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system …. Schools directly send students into the pipeline through zero tolerance policies that involve the police in minor incidents and often lead to arrests, juvenile detention referrals, and even criminal charges and incarceration. Schools indirectly push students towards the criminal justice system by excluding them from school through suspension, expulsion, discouragement and high stakes testing requirements.

Yes, schools in New York City are all staffed with School Safety Officers who monitor school entrances and work with school staffs to maintain order and discipline. And, yes, many high school schools require students to pass through metal detectors, referred to as scanning. Scanning is required at virtually every public building; every court, City Hall, State Offices buildings, in fact, photo IDs are required at most office buildings around the city.

Sadly schools can be dangerous places. Mayor David Dinkins was on his way to Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn for a community event when he received stunning news – a student had been shot to death by another student in the building. A few years earlier the Board of Education had designated twenty high schools for the placement of metal detectors. Carol Beck, the principal of Jefferson vigorously opposed the placement in her school. The students were being treated as criminals and stigmatizing communities of color; she was supported by a range of civil rights organizations around the city, the Board relented, and a child died. (Read NY Times article here).

Chalkbeat reports that the number of suspensions is down by 10% (as of 3-31-15), of course the department controls the number of suspensions, all suspensions at the superintendent level must be approved by the hierarchy. Whether restorative practices resulted in a decrease in suspendable offenses or whether the department simply is not approving requests to suspend we do not know, whether schools will become less safe under the de Blasio/Farina administration or whether schools were too quick to suspend is also an unknown.

I suspect the department has changed the administration of the rules to make it extremely difficult to suspend a student.

Some schools in similar neighborhoods have much higher suspension numbers than other schools and some schools with no or very low suspension rates are chaotic.

School tone is set by the school leader, and, unfortunately too many school leaders are leaders in name only. On a visit to a middle school the principal proudly told me, “We are committed to restorative justice, no one will ever be suspended in my school.” She may very well have been totally committed, the kids weren’t, they were floating around the building, the building was a mess. Conversely, in another middle school in a very tough neighborhood the first kid who saw me walked up, introduced himself, shook hands, and asked how he could help me.

One principal monitors Facebook pages and social media: did something happen in the projects that might spill over into the school?

I was sitting in on a principal council in a multi-school campus; the item on the agenda was school tone. The principals were finger pointing, why did “your kids” wander into my part of the building? Why were “your kids” picking fights with “my kids?” After a while I asked, “Why don’t you meet with the gang leaders?” A principal, aghast, asked “Why would I wanna do that?” Perhaps unkindly I responded, “Because they run the building.”

Leadership is way beyond applying Danielson Frameworks to classroom lessons. Leadership are kids respecting the school leader, leadership is establishing the tone that allows for teaching and learning in classrooms.

Years ago I worked with a superintendent, his favorite line, “Order precedes learning.”

How does a school leader convince kids to leave the culture of the streets at the school door? Do school leaders have the tools to discipline students for egregious acts?

To blame schools, to blame suspension policies for incarceration is foolish and harmful to all students. Just as in the larger world schools must have rules with a set of sanctions for violating the rules. Just as in the larger world the rules must make sense and be equitably applied.

Suspending kids as a surrogate for effective leadership is unacceptable as is failing to sanction kids for bad behavior.


3 responses to “Schools Are NOT a Pipeline to Prison: We Cannot Blame Schools, School Leaders and Teachers for the Failures of National Policies.

  1. I have never agreed more with all the previous editorials then I do with this one. School Tone is set by The Administration.Frank Mickens (he should rest in peacve) recognized this fact of life early on. When he became The Prin of Boys and Girls HS in Bed Stuy, he wanted as hig a caliber of academics as he could get. To that end, he recognized the need to bring in as many talented teachers as he could. He drew from all quarters of ethnicities and colors to fill out his staffs. I was told at the time, by someone who was a veteran on that staff, and a confidante to Frank, that very often , during the interview proceses, prospective teachers, would express concerns as to their in house safety, and outside perimeter safety. Frank stated without hesitation, “I guarantee your safety in and around this school at all times.He knew that setting tone was key to learning and teaching functions. Any professional instructor, merely seeks an atmospeher where he/she can ply their trade skills without fear. Students who know that they will not have to fear being victims in their own surriundings, are pro responsive to instructional delivery. IT all begins with The Principal, and his/her ability to define and implement an effective school tone for all concerned parties.


  2. rachel dearagon

    We have a new chapter. Criminal code style “discipline” has come to an end with the chancellorship of a person who respects the professional abilities and training of teachers and administrators. The new A-411 5-21-15 makes it clear that educators are expected to use their training to de-escalate tensions, involve parents, and teach expectations and norms– not rely on the police to “lock-em up” . There are serious crimes committed in our city, school yard fist-a-cuffs, vulgar smart-alecks, and loud-mouthed teenage altercations are not reason clog the court system. In hope that we can all be hopeful, let us look forward to this new chapter.


  3. It’s a shame you don’t have a donate button! I’d most certainly donate to this fantastic blog!
    I guess for now i’ll settle for bookmarking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.
    I look forward to brand new updates and will talk about this site with my
    Facebook group. Chat soon!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s