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. NEA is building awareness, educating members and the community and taking action with NEA affiliates, members and allies.
In that spirit (and for the second year in a row), we’re participating in the Dignity in School Campaign’s 8th Annual National Week of Action Against School Pushout, October 21-29.
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 the 2016 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 evidence of 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 by highlighting the philosophy of restorative justice while focusing on “restorative practices,” including peace circles, 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. NEA has also partnered with Advancement Project and Community Justice for Youth Institute to host nationwide peace circle trainings for NEA members and community members.
Restorative practices have been shown to create stronger and positive relationships school staff and students that have resulted in decrease school suspension which is disrupting the school to prison pipeline. Students feel more connected and valued at school. The use of restorative practices also greatly contributes to a positive school climate, which we know is necessary for students to thrive. And through ESSA, we can measure school climate as an indicator of a school’s success, so implementing restorative practices is one way to get there.
A step-by-step implementation guide, developed by NEA, on how to bring school-wide restorative practices to your school is available here.
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.