The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Students Weigh In
“Do you believe we should have police officers in our school?” a student asked me at the start of class, before I could even get a word out.
Generally, when students ask me questions like this, it is because they have an opinion on the matter that they want to share, and I make it a point to stay away from controversial topics like this one. I want my students to make up their own minds about issues, not to blindly assume I’m right because I’m older than they are. So, I turned the question back on the student.
“Well, what do you think about that?”
What ensued was a lively discussion about the pros and cons of having police officers in schools. I was not surprised to hear that my students were generally distrustful of police officers; at their age, they are opposed to most any authority figure. Between teachers, deans, counselors, administrators and parents, it’s no wonder some students were so vehemently opposed to adding police officers to the list of people they need to report to during the day.
On the flip side of the issue, though, I was also not surprised to hear that, after the recent shooting in Newtown, CT, students are craving more security measures. For some, that means having armed police officers in school to stop a potential bad guy in his tracks.
The discussion ended with the dismissal bell, and my students shuffled out on their way to their next classes, but my job was just beginning. I wanted to dive into this issue further. It isn’t often that students are so engaged in a topic that a discussion goes bell to bell, so I quickly went online to find articles about police officers in schools that my students could read the next day. The results surprised even me. Most of what I found was about the school-to-prison pipeline, an institutional system by which teachers are referring students to on-campus police officers for minor infractions such as writing on a desk (which is technically vandalism) or talking back (which could be seen as assault) as well as for major ones like fighting and drug use. Historically, most of these issues have been dealt with by the schools themselves, but with the rise of on-campus police officers, arrests have become a real problem, and even one arrest dramatically decreases the likelihood that a student will graduate from high school. From Teaching Tolerance magazine:
Last month, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., held the first federal hearing on the school-to-prison pipeline—an important step toward ending policies that favor incarceration over education and disproportionately push minority students and students with disabilities out of schools and into jails.
In opening the hearing, Durbin told the subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, “For many young people, our schools are increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system. This phenomenon is a consequence of a culture of zero tolerance that is widespread in our schools and is depriving many children of their fundamental right to an education.”
This is particularly an issue in Chicago Public Schools, which is very close to where I teach, so my students were interested in this as a local issue as well. I presented them with the articles I found, and they read them and we discussed the issue as a class. Upon seeing that the class was still split on the issue of whether or not police officers should be present in school, I asked them if they thought students should be arrested in school, whether a police officer was there full time or not. The class was split on that issue, as well, so I decided that the next day we would have a formal debate in class about whether or not students should be arrested in schools to work on the students’ persuasive skills. I gave them each jobs and told them what to prepare at home that night.
When the students came in the next day, they were ready to debate. I moderated, asking questions of both sides of the room, and the students answered. Though they ended the debate without a consensus, some of their responses were brilliant. When one side brought up the fact that teachers should be doing the discipline on their own, one student said, “Teachers are doing what counselors and deans should be doing. Everyone has a job they should be doing. If someone is doing a job that isn’t theirs, everything goes wrong.” The other side responded, “Don’t students have a job, too? Why can’t they just do what they’re supposed to do? If they don’t and they are breaking the law, they should be arrested like anyone else.”
Though my students didn’t agree by the end of the debate, it was fascinating watching them discuss this important and timely issue with such passion. They brought up issues I’ve never thought about, and their insights were fantastic. If only politicians and policy makers could listen in on what my students have to say. After all, in this particular situation, they are the experts.
Photo Credit: Elvert Barnes