Black Children and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

My upscale neighborhood didn’t protect my daughter from being a target

Illustration: Geneva Bowers

II always strove to give my daughter access to good schools in “safe” areas, but an experience in a public school has taught me how students of color, even in well-resourced schools and neighborhoods, can fall victim to the school-to-prison pipeline. As The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander explained in a recent interview, the school-to-prison pipeline is a metaphor that describes how children are pushed directly from schools into prison in lieu of opportunity. As a Black woman who once attended elementary school in inner-city Chicago, I learned that my daughter could also face systems that have longed deterred generations of Black children from reaching their full potential.

In 2016, my daughter and I embarked on a short walk from our apartment in Seattle to begin her fourth-grade year at a new school. We walked through Jimmy Hendrix Park, passed the local African American Museum, and arrived at her school. She was nervous; I was proud of our new journey, having two months earlier successfully moved from Illinois to Washington for a graduate degree. I was relieved that we were settled in a safe area.

Decades ago, like my daughter, I was facing my own transition in fourth grade. I learned that my trip to my grandmother’s house in Chicago was permanent after my parents’ custody agreement was solidified in their divorce. I would soon get a firsthand introduction to the inequities of the public education system at my school on Chicago’s West Side, while my brothers went to the neighboring suburban Oak Park schools. Children in Oak Park were more at ease and had many opportunities to thrive. I knew my new school had less money and fewer extracurricular activities and was less safe than my brothers’ schools. I cried when I found out. The role of neighborhood socioeconomics in determining the quality of schools drove me to finish my college degree, pursue graduate degrees, and ensure life beyond the redlining of inner cities.

II now know that I was naive to assume that neighborhood safety would ensure my Black child’s success in the public educational system. My daughter’s fourth-grade year in her new school in Seattle felt like an initiation — an immersion in social cues meant to limit my child’s potential.

A literacy teacher wrongly assessed my daughter and put her in one of the lowest reading levels in her class. It was corrected, but it is an experience that still bothers her.

Upon the bell ringing, I quickly observed a gap — a barrier that created a different experience for children of color at this school. As children convened into single-file lines in the schoolyard, racial diversity was concentrated in a few lines. The other lines were composed of mostly white children, which I learned was the result of those students being in the Highly Capable Cohort (HCC). Although my daughter always had access to curriculum enhancement, our only option for curriculum enhancement was this HCC program, which children had to test into. After my daughter complained that the books she was limited to were “too easy,” I found out that a literacy teacher wrongly assessed my daughter and put her in one of the lowest reading levels in her class. It was corrected, but it is an experience that still bothers her. And I fear that other children of color could be improperly assessed due to potential implicit or explicit bias.

In Chicago, I had always feared other students more than teachers, and I never wanted my daughter to be bullied. At this school, I feared the heavy hand of discipline that could strike unforgivingly at any moment. During her first week, my daughter went to the principal’s office to be a witness for the first time. Going to the principal’s office either as a witness or as a student in trouble became a new normal for her. A bit over a month into the school year, she brought home three write-ups in one day from a bus driver. This put her a step away from receiving a suspension. I refused to sign them because I felt multiple write-ups in one day were overboard for a minor squabble between best friends. With each reprimand, my daughter’s love for school, her grades, and her confidence dwindled.

The fear of discipline extended to my daughter’s classmates. At the height of #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein in the media, during my daughter’s second year, her fifth-grade teacher told me she was hoping to suspend a Black boy who often played with my daughter. The teacher thought he was sexually harassing my daughter. I told her that suspension was harsh, considering my child found him “annoying” but not threatening in a sexual manner. He was no Harvey Weinstein, only a child in a long learning process who needed guidance.

The incident that helped me see the clear path of the school-to-prison pipeline involved a teacher verbally threatening police force on a fifth-grade classmate. This is a school that participates annually in #BlackLivesMatter events on campus and is well aware of the relationship dynamics between Black boys and men and the police. Yet, the white teacher openly threatened this Black boy with police force in front of students in a classroom.

FFearing that my child and her classmates of color could be a part of the prison-to-school pipeline is not a big jump given nationwide statistics. Black and brown children in Washington’s public schools are disproportionately disciplined compared to their white counterparts, according to the Equity in Education Coalition, a civil rights organization that advocates for children of color in the state’s education system. Nationwide, 40% of students expelled from U.S. schools each year are Black, 70% of students involved in school arrests or referred to law enforcement are Black or Latino, and 95% of out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent misbehavior.

According to the ACLU of Washington, students who are suspended are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school, and have contact with the juvenile system in the next year. A 2018 Associated Press article written by Kirby Farineau highlights minor school incidents that cause youth to be entangled in the criminal system. In one of the cases mentioned, an eighth-grader accused of stealing a 65-cent carton of milk was suspended and sent to juvenile court. The article reports that the charges were later dropped, but this incident represents a startling trend of how innocent childhood blunders are criminalized. Alexander spoke in the interview about how tough discipline in schools feeds the school-to-prison pipeline, mentioning that heavy discipline in schools has roots in law enforcement policies. Sadly, the earliest zero tolerance policies in schools were copied verbatim from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration manual, according to an Advancement Project report.

When choosing my daughter’s middle school, I looked for safety beyond a safe neighborhood. Safety for me now meant finding… a place that reflected societal diversity.

At present, my daughter is a seventh-grader entering her second year of middle school. When choosing her middle school, I looked for safety beyond a safe neighborhood. Safety for me now meant finding a school with a more diverse teaching staff and student body — a place that reflected societal diversity. Weeks before my daughter was to begin her new school, her homeroom teacher, a man of color, texted me to introduce himself. I was ready to advocate for my daughter as I had in the old school. But in a short phone call, he displayed an understanding of and support for my daughter that I had not experienced in our two years at the other school.

I informed him that I thought my daughter should be in honors.

He responded, “Yes, she is already enrolled in honors.”

In 2018, my daughter and I took a short walk in our new neighborhood, down a hill toward her new middle school for orientation day. We could see Mount Rainier in the distance. I was still scarred from my previous experience, but when we arrived, my tensions began to decrease. I saw students from diverse ethnicities dispersed across the school and teachers who were African American, Latino, Chinese, and more. A weight lifted. I was then able to focus on the minor worries of any parent with a child entering middle school.

That year, my daughter did not have any incidents that prompted the type of punishment and complaints she had repeatedly received at her old school. She thrived, repeatedly making honor roll. Yet, I know many children and parents are still in the trenches, trapped in school systems that are safe for some but are not properly set up to ensure success for all children. My hope is that other parents and children of color experience the relief and reward of education without constant fear of heavy discipline. Fear does not help children develop; investment, understanding, and support have been the keys to my daughter’s success. There has to be a zero tolerance for criminalizing children of color and for any educational system being a pipeline for prison.

Writer, Environmentalist, Social Justice Advocate

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