Parents Must Shut Down the School-to-Prison Pipeline


When Zakiya Sankara-Jabar’s son was repeatedly suspended from his Pre-K program, she was shocked at first. The preschool kept calling her to say her son was in trouble for biting other students or having trouble transitioning from one activity to another. In Zakiya’s view, “They made normal three-year-old behavior sound very pathologized and abnormal.” Eventually, she had to withdraw her son from the school but he was subsequently suspended and expelled at other preschools.

Zakiya had to drop out of college to care for her son but before she did, she used the college’s library services to search for articles on the experiences of black boys in public education. She quickly learned that her family’s experiences were not unusual. “I suddenly realized that I wasn’t a bad parent and my son wasn’t abnormal. This was something larger, more societal, that was happening to African American parents.”

It turns out that the school-to-prison pipeline starts in Pre-K, especially for black boys. Suspensions are the beginning of the school-to-prison pipeline, which refers to harsh and racially inequitable school discipline policies that push students out of school, onto the street, and eventually into the criminal justice system. Boys of color and those with special needs are especially impacted but girls of color also face discriminatory discipline.

Yet, in December, the Trump administration, followed the recommendations of its Commission on School Safety report and rescinded the Obama-era guidance that warned against the zero-tolerance school discipline policies that feed the school-to-prison pipeline. The commission was ostensibly a response to school shootings like the one in Parkland earlier in the year, which have occurred in largely white communities.

But the recommendations call for the return to those zero tolerance discipline policies that disproportionately impact black and brown students, even as early as Pre-K. Black students are three times more likely to be suspended as white students over all grades. When boys of color fail to graduate from high school, the lifelong impact can be devastating. Two-thirds of black men without a high school diploma end up in prison at some point in their lives.

According to the most recent data available from the Department of Education, more than 7,000 children were suspended or expelled from public preschools in the 2013-2014 school year; many more were suspended from private ones. Although African American students made up only 19 percent of the preschool population that year, they received 47 percent of the suspensions or expulsions.

Zakiya’s experience and federal data suggest that this movement has to start with early education and feature a prominent role for parents. As my research shows, tackling the deep-seated nature of racial inequities in public education will require building an educational justice movement that brings diverse stakeholders together, including teachers in the classroom, administrators, high school students, higher education, and many others. 

The voices of African American parents like Zakiya, telling their stories and advocating for themselves, create a passionate and powerful force for change. Zakiya went on to start Racial Justice NOW! in Dayton, Ohio, with University of Dayton ProfessorVernillia Randall. Randall gathered data on school discipline while Zakiya began to organize other parents who had similar experiences. In partnership with the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a national coalition of organizing and advocacy groups working to end school pushout, parents in Racial Justice NOW! won a moratorium on suspensions for students in pre-K to third grades in the Dayton Public Schools; changed the district’s code of conduct to end zero-tolerance policies; and issued school discipline report cards for school districts across Ohio. The group also won alternative restorative justice programs in eight schools, which help schools get at the root causes of behavioral issues. Rather than punish and suspend, students, teachers and sometimes families form restorative circles that discuss the harm caused by conflicts and attempt to restore relationships.

Meanwhile, CADRE, a parent organizing group in South Los Angeles, was one of the first groups to call attention to the school-to-prison pipeline, label it as a form of systemic racism, and advocate for policy change. In 2007, this relatively small but persistent group of parents became the first in the nation to get a school district to begin to change its zero tolerance policies when it pushed the Los Angeles Unified School District to adopt school-wide positive behavior support systems. Nearly 75,000 days of instruction were being lost per year to suspensions at that time. 

Rather than punish children for acting out, this alternative program works to address the root causes of misbehavior and provide student supports, such as additional school counselors and other professionals to help address the social and emotional needs of children. A growing body of research shows that positive behavior intervention and supports and other alternatives like restorative justice, when implemented with fidelity, can herald a larger transformation of school climate into a safer and more supportive and welcoming environment for children and their parents.

CADRE continues to organize and support parents to enter schools to assess the implementation of positive approaches to discipline and hold the school district accountable for real change. Maisie Chin, CADRE’s executive director, believes it is critical to challenge the racist stereotype of black and brown parents as “bad” parents or ones that don’t care about their children’s education.

“Although black and brown parents like our CADRE leaders embody the trauma of racism, they also embody all the possibilities for transforming our schools,” she says. “We believe our parents and all parents can be the shape-shifters: they are the ones who can and will call forth the better angels in our schools.”

Organized and assertive parents of color are demanding that teachers reject the racial bias and stereotypes that cast young rambunctious black boys as trouble-makers in need of strict discipline and even suspension and expulsion. Despite biased treatment at the hands of many teachers, black parent leaders know they need to reach out to educators to create the change they want.

Fortunately, a growing number of teachers, including teachers of color, see themselves as allies with parents in the quest to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline. Roberta Udoh is a black early education teacher at Young Achievers Science & Math School in the Boston Public Schools system. In her view, “When poor black or brown children act up, they are seen as ‘troublemakers’ and sent out into the hall or even suspended; when suburban white children do the same thing, they are called ‘precocious.’ Black and brown boys especially are disciplined rather than supported to channel their energy into positive learning.”

Roberta believes that teachers like her must reject the constant pressure to assess even very young children on pre-reading readiness skills, for example. Instead, Roberta works hard to partner with families and address the social-emotional demands of her students as well as their academic needs by engaging children in constructive play, fostering their natural curiosity, and nurturing their souls. In the end, though, she says, “These are societal issues that will not be solved solely within schools. We have to take action to create a society that meets the needs of all children—in the community and in the school.” 

With the federal administration moving towards support for zero tolerance and increased arming of school staff, the prospects for shutting down the school-to-prison pipeline lie in building a broad educational justice movement that supports parents and students of color who are most likely to be affected by these injustices to demand and advocate for policy changes. Schools must strive to provide quality, humane and empowering education to these young people and their families. Parents need to find ways to ally with teachers and other educators who are open to authentic partnerships so they can work together to create and implement positive practices as early as the pre-K years.

In her work, Zakiya aims to “jolt the consciousness of our parents in our community.” “The abnormal has been normalized—that is, black children, especially boys, will routinely be suspended and labeled “failures” at school,” she says. “I refuse to let it be normalized—I know it is not right.”

This article was posted in conjunction with the Scholars Strategy Network.

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