The Virginia Commonwealth University chapter of the “Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action in Society” (PLUMAS) held an interactive seminar, “The School to Prison Pipeline: School to Prison to Deportation,” on March 22 to help spread awareness, particularly in light of the Trump administration and heightened tensions across the country.
The “school-to-prison pipeline” is a metaphor used to describe the trend of children, particularly those in minority groups, being systematically funneled out of public schools and into the criminal justice system. Event moderators Camille Brenke and Diego Orbegoso said that this cycle is perpetuated by a variety of factors including zero-tolerance policies that criminalize minor offenses, statewide standardized testing initiatives that push out students who can’t keep up and a lack of proper training for teachers working in underfunded schools.
“If you’re consistently being suspended or left behind and you’re being forced back to your community, then often times people will drop out,” Orbegoso said. “Then if you don’t have a degree, you can’t get a job, and this is how generational poverty continues. For undocumented kids who depend on public schools for their livelihood, they have a lot to lose.”
According to a March 2014 survey completed by the U.S. Department of Education, there is a 16 percent chance that a black student will be suspended at least once during their time in public high school. For children who are black and have a physical or learning disability, these statistics increase to 25 percent. For white students, there is only a 5 percent chance that they will ever be suspended.
In addition to being suspended at rates much higher than their white peers, black and latinx students account for 70 percent of police referrals. These trends can begin affecting minority children as early as preschool, where black children make up 18 percent of preschoolers yet account for 48 percent of preschool suspensions.
While the seminar was particularly focused on the experiences of racial minorities in public schools, PLUMAS also addressed the intersections of persecution, and asked audience members to discuss the ways in which gender, sexual orientation, disability status and geographic location can affect a child’s likelihood to remain in public school.
PLUMAS member Alex Rios said these suspensions stem from the perpetuation of zero-tolerance policies; a practice which ensures that sticking to policy takes precedent over exploring new solutions.
“Minority children are directly affected by these policies, and it looks like more brown and black kids being sent to detention and in-school suspension while white kids can do the same thing and get a slap on the wrist,” Rios said.
School zoning practices that channel children in low-income neighborhoods into under-funded schools are another factor contributing to the perpetuation of the pipeline. The lack of resources at these schools coupled with intensive security measures and a thorough police presence can create a climate that feels more like a prison than a typical high school.
“When students have to go through metal detectors before entering their school, it literally looks and feels like going to a prison,” Brenke said. “They go through security and sit in a windowless room for eight hours a day and have police officers everywhere (…) the entire set up mirrors a prison and these kids feel demonized and they internalize their environment”
One key issue embedded within the pipeline is a lack of training programs that would help young teachers learn how to work with underprivileged children.
“There’s a fault in both the education systems of the teachers as well as the kids,” Rios said. “It’s a cycle.”
Rios explained that often-times, teachers working to complete their master’s degrees don’t have the experience necessary to run a classroom in ways that are conducive to the particular needs inner-city youth.
“We expect teachers that haven’t even finished their master’s program to control these classrooms with 30 or more students who all need different levels of help,” Rios said.
In addressing the future of the pipeline, Brenke said there are steps which can be taken to interrupt the pipeline’s cycles and build a culture of empowering young students. She urged attendees to ask themselves how they can reach out to students in their own communities and help foster educational communities that support minority groups.
“We need to reorient the way we think about success in regards to what a student is,” Brenke said. “They are more than just a statistic or a grade on a test, and we need to reform the school system to be built around supporting them.”
The seminar was the fourth event of the organization’s “Dream Week 2017,” a university-driven initiative focused on education and advocacy on the struggles faced by undocumented immigrants. This year’s Dream Week will culminate with a statewide conference at Virginia Tech University and include representatives from PLUMAS at VCU as well as the University of Virginia, George Mason University and various other colleges and universities across the region.
Lia Tabackman, Contributing Writer