The School to Prison Pipeline

Schools are blamed for many things and many social ills in American culture.  Following the most recent school shooting in Oxford, MI, the phrase “school to prison pipeline” is rearing its ugly head again.  I’ve been a school administrator in some fashion now for sixteen years, this saying is among the most offensive I’ve encountered.  

The simplest image conjured by the school to prison pipeline is clear, schools are complicit in creating and tending to a system wherein students are unfairly shuffled off to prison shortly after shuffling across the graduation stage (or not graduating, I suppose).  Let’s clear up this  hurtful image right now.  Administrators do not have red phones sitting on their desks with direct lines to the judges and wardens responsible for incarcerating innocent Americans.  

I further want to emphasize that the vast majority of folks who work in public schools care deeply about children.  We are saddened when we see children headed down wrong paths and we intervene with whatever resources we have.  It is certainly true that we work with law enforcement and the legal community when students commit behaviors that break the law.  Schools may also be involved when directed to monitor or report to courts or to work with a student’s parole officer.  Our hopes in these relationships are always that students will turn their behavior around and achieve in school.

What we cannot change is a student’s home environment.  When there is a student with frequent misbehaviors serious enough to result in detention, suspension, or expulsion, we are very rarely surprised by the type of engagement and cooperation we receive from the home.  

Now I can hear my most liberal friends sharpening their knives already.  “Lou, there you go blaming families!  That is not fair!  Maybe the family faces hardships, is discriminated against and so on.”  Very often, on other topics, I side with liberals as well.  Where I often conflict with my colleagues on this is where responsibility lies and what a school’s role is in changing the realities they are faced with.  While I agree that there are aspects of society we should seek to improve, and those realities include dealing with hate groups, racism, and discrimination; to expect schools, as they are currently run and financed, to be responsible for the effects of both a student’s home life and for society’s failings, is to be far outside the lines of what schools are designed, financed, and intended to do.  That is, to educate students and to help endow them with the skills necessary to enter adulthood and the workforce successfully.

When a child is neglected, abused (either physically, emotionally or both), living in an unstable household, has parents who are incarcerated, living in a household with frequent alcohol or drug abuse and the behaviors that often arise from substance abuse, or is simply not nurtured, loved, or told that learning is important and expected, these realities have outcomes in school.  As much as anyone might wish it were not so, we are very largely victims of our home environment and upbringing, whatever form that may take.  Of course there are inspiring outliers, but they are outliers.

I cannot tell you the number of times my colleagues and I have felt heartbroken when we have seen a child heading down an unfortunate path.  We are not ogres hovering over our red phones ready to alert the prison warden.  For every child who has dropped out, been arrested, or worse, there have been numerous attempts to contact and work with parents—usually to no effective avail.  Very often there have been reports filed to social services to report some form of neglect or abuse.  Social workers, counselors, and teachers have tried numerous strategies to try to get a child to leave the path s/he is on.

Most commonly we are met with indifference, denial, blame, and/or simply ineffective parenting.  I’ll write elsewhere on what effective vs. ineffective parenting means, put simply here ineffective parenting is parenting that has failed, through inaction or consistent action, to provide the structure, discipline (and here I do not mean simply punishment), love and adult supervision that children require in order to be successful.

In short, if one wants to designate a “pipeline” to prison from anywhere, that pipeline starts in the home.  Might schools be able to better close off this pipeline? Maybe. However, doing so would require a great deal more resources and changes in laws.

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