Commentary: We can fight the school-to-jail pipeline with better public education for students of color | Remark
As 2022 begins, many may view with relief recent verdicts and actions in the US justice system that may finally signal a shift toward equal justice.
The sentencing of the three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, including two life sentences without the possibility of parole, comes on top of news of former Minnesota police officer Kim Potter’s recent conviction for manslaughter in the death of Daunte Wright.
But injustice still exists in courtrooms and classrooms across the country and throughout history with roots in the juvenile justice system.
A recent whistleblower from a Tennessee judge, Donna Scott Davenport, reveals that she pulled young black people out of school and sentenced them to prison for more than 20 years. She is still sitting in her courtroom.
“I locked up a 7-year-old in 13, and it was heartbreaking,” Davenport said in 2012. “But kids 8 and 9 and up are very common now.”
Davenport has held her post as an elected judge for more than two decades, despite her record and public outcry over her treatment of black children. The recent investigation only adds to the evidence that the nationwide juvenile justice system has a shocking and consistent history of arresting children – mostly black – for non-criminal offenses.
As the leader of an Equity or Else movement, along with community groups in many states, including Illinois, that recognize the critical need to address the racism entrenched in virtually every American institution, I regard this recent briefing as emblematic of the epidemic of racism.
This epidemic has left in its wake a national education and juvenile justice system that has created and fuels a pipeline from school to prison, disproportionately trapping black, brown and indigenous children in a trap that can last a lifetime.
Teens who attend schools with high suspension rates are much more likely to be arrested and imprisoned as adults, according to the Fall 2021 issue of the journal Education Next. Researchers found that black male students are more than three times more likely to be suspended from school than white male students.
“There is in fact a school-to-prison pipeline,” the researchers concluded. “We find that the negative impacts of strict disciplinary environments are greatest for minorities and men, suggesting that suspension policies widen preexisting gaps in academic achievement and incarceration.”
These environments are punctuated by so-called school resource officers—police officers stationed in school buildings. More than 1.5 million Black, Brown and Indigenous K-12 students attend schools that have a resource officer but no counselor, ensuring that many of these students will be left behind. The violence inflicted on black and brown children by school resource officers nationwide must end. They don’t make our schools safer, and their presence means schools lose valuable resources that could be used for counseling and social services.
White-majority schools have historically offered much more in core classes, advanced placement opportunities, after-school programs, guidance counselors, and student supports. Some examples from the report “Failing: Brown v. Board” from the Journey for Justice Alliance explain what equity would mean for students of color:
At Marshall High School in Milwaukee, non-white students make up 94% of the student body. The school offers basic English lessons only for first year and second year students and only two other classes. Menomonee Falls High School in a nearby suburb has 21% nonwhite students. It offers 10 English lessons.
In Dallas, 39% of Centennial High students are non-white, compared to 100% of South Oak Cliff High students. Yet Centennial offers twice as many language courses, three times as many Advanced Placement courses, and 23 career path offerings, compared to three at South Oak Cliff.
In Denver, 96% of Manuel High students are minorities. They can choose from five art courses, seven AP courses and only one foreign language, Spanish. At Cherry Creek High, 33% of students are black or students of color. They have 27 AP classes, six foreign languages, and 21 classes in the arts.
The report concludes: “This is racism in action.”
The main goal of the Equity or Else campaign is to establish sustainable community schools. The 2022 federal budget would allocate $440 million to establish such schools, reversing the trend of privatization of public education through charter schools. The movement for equity in public education aims to make America’s schools more welcoming and truly safe spaces for all children in which they can hope to learn.
A culturally relevant and stimulating curriculum, supports for high-quality teaching, holistic supports for each child, a student-centered school climate, and meaningful parental and community engagement make School Types that all children deserve.
In an America where many claim to care about racial justice, it is high time to demand zero tolerance for racism against Black, Brown and Indigenous children and communities.
Jitu Brown is the National Director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, a collaboration of grassroots, youth, and parent community organizations, and a Global Fellow for Racial Equity at the Atlantic Institute. Copyright 2022 Chicago Tribune. Distributed by content agency Tribune.
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