In 2015 we voted unanimously at the NEA Representative Assembly to confront institutional racism in our schools. That means looking at the structures and processes that advantage some students and disadvantage others, especially students of color.
Those structures and processes include the harsh disciplinary practices that directly or indirectly push students out of school and into the criminal justice system. We call this the school to prison pipeline.
We’re standing together to shut down the pipeline and bring an end to the unfair imposition of discipline that alienates far too many students from their own schools. The NEA is building awareness, educating members and the community and taking action with NEA affiliates, members and allies.
In that spirit, we’re participating in the Dignity in School Campaign’s 7th Annual National Week of Action Against School Pushout, October 15-23.
I’ve crisscrossed the nation meeting our members, and I know we care about this. I constantly marvel at how invested we are in making sure all students feel a sense of belonging and understanding in their schools. But we are not perfect. We must be brave enough to constantly ask ourselves, “What role do I play in making sure that my students see this school as their doorway to an equal opportunity to learn and be respected?”
This question drove us at this year’s Representative Assembly to pass a policy statement to end the school-to-prison pipeline. As educators who share a passion for building up, nurturing and inspiring students, we know that the pipeline diminishes their educational opportunities and life trajectories.
“The school-to-prison pipeline deprives students of color of their futures by pushing them out of school and its pathway to college and careers, and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems,” our policy statement attests. There’s plenty of evidence of the racial disparities in how harsh punishments are meted out to students. But there is also a disproportionate impact on students who identify as LGBTQ, students with disabilities and students who are English Language Learners.
Some of the actions that feed into the school to prison pipeline include:
- harsh school discipline policies that overuse suspension and expulsion.
- subjective and/or biased discipline policies.
- increased policing and surveillance, and the use of physical elements of prisons, such as windows with bars, that create prison-like environments in schools.
- over-reliance on referrals to law enforcement and juvenile justice systems.
- an alienating and punitive high-stakes, test-driven academic environment.
We’ve been working to shut down the pipeline for several years. And just last fall, over 500 activists from across the nation joined an NEA phone call to talk about alternatives to the disciplinary practices that turn some of our most vulnerable students away from schools. We focused on “restorative practices,” including peer juries and mediation and community service, to prevent and address conflict and wrongdoing by building healthy relationships and a sense of community. NEA members from Colorado to Maryland are having great success using these methods.
A guide book about restorative practices, a joint project of the NEA, the American Federation of Teachers, the Advancement Project and the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, is available here.
Our focus on the ways in which zero-tolerance policies and other severe disciplinary procedures push students out of school and into jail is crucial. Just this year, the U.S. Department of Education reported that since 1979-80, state and local spending on prisons and jails has grown three times as much as spending on K-12 public schools. Higher education is similarly disadvantaged; over the past two decades spending on colleges and universities has been flat, while spending on jails and prisons has increased by almost 90 percent.
It is true, and it is shameful: We are spending at a faster clip to jail students than to educate them. As Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Obama said, “These misguided priorities make us less safe, cost us an exorbitant amount of money and betray our core values.”
Whether we are teachers, lunch ladies, school bus drivers, school nurses or paraeducators, we share a passion for students—and in particular, for making sure that we provide them with every opportunity to succeed.
That means seeing our students’ humanity and doing our best to exercise compassion and empathy even when our patience and understanding are tested. And it means adding our ideas and perspectives to the loud chorus of voices demanding change…not in five or 10 years, but now.