If you are committed to shutting down the school-to-prison pipeline, “13th” is a must-see documentary.
The film was nominated for an Academy Award for its provocative, revealing, look at how the United States, with only 5 percent of the world’s population, came to incarcerate 25 percent of the world’s population. It did not win, but that doesn’t make “13th” any less powerful.
Director Ava DuVernay connects the dots between slavery, Reconstruction, convict leasing, the Southern Strategy, the law-and-order regime that emerged during the Civil Rights Movement, the crackdown on nonviolent drug offenses and the rise of the prison-industrial complex.
The film even examines the influence of ALEC, the group whose corporate members write model bills to suit their profits, then pass them along to state legislators who turn those model bills into laws. Aside from promoting mass incarceration, ALEC has also pushed voucher legislation.
The one aspect of this complex issue DuVernay’s film did not examine was something many of us are familiar with: zero-tolerance policies, the assigning of explicit, predetermined and often severe punishments to specific violations of school rules, without taking into account the situation or context.
The film looks at mass incarceration through the lens of the 13th Amendment:
“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”
“That number includes people in 1,800 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 942 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,283 local jails, and 79 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in U.S. territories,” a report by the Prison Policy Initiative says.
The film explains how people are frequently incarcerated not because they’ve been convicted, but because they are too poor to afford bail. The Prison Policy Initiative backs this up in Detaining the Poor: How money bail perpetuates an endless cycle of poverty and jail time:
“One reason the unconvicted population in the U.S. is so large is because our country largely has a system of money bail, in which the constitutional principle of innocent until proven guilty only really applies to the well-off.”
Among the incarcerated are nearly 40,000 youth, more than 5,000 of whom are in adult prisons and jails. An additional 20,000 youth are in residential facilities.
We must save our young people. We must shut down the school-to-prison pipeline, because it denies students the opportunity for an inspiring, thought-provoking education—in a supportive, nurturing environment—that will set them off toward a great future.
Our decisions determine how discipline is handled in schools. And often, implicit biases we are unaware of affect those decisions. We can grow in our practice by looking for alternatives to zero-tolerance policies, suspensions, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement and school-based arrests.
I believe that as the policy statement and recommendations we adopted at last year’s Representative Assembly say, we must create and promote discipline practices that hold students accountable without pushing them out of the very places where they should feel nurtured, safe and respected: their schools.
In a Facebook Live discussion on February 21, we focused on the school-to-prison pipeline’s impact on African American girls, who are disciplined more harshly in our schools than other girls. The discussion featured teacher Robin McNair and Adaku Onyeka-Crawford of the National Women’s Law Center. The law center recently produced a provocative video about the disparate treatment of black girls in school as part of its “Let Her Learn” campaign. A downloadable toolkit to examine policies and practices is available from the center.
Robin said educators in her Maryland district are being trained on restorative practices for preventing and addressing problems. They are also getting cultural competency training and learning how to provide a safe and supportive environment for LGBTQ students. Focusing on building relationships with all students, Robin said, is the most important step educators can take.
Please take another important step by signing our petition to disrupt the pipeline. But don’t stop there.
Look at “13th” and our Facebook Live discussion to analyze the relationship between the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration. And then, let’s all roll up our sleeves and get to work.
Robin advises educators to do what she did. “Don’t be afraid to put the mirror in front of your face. Don’t be afraid to look at what you’re doing to see where you need to change.”