School-To-Prison Pipeline?

Ken Gorrellby Ken Gorrell, Weirs Times Contributing Writer

At least they returned the grenade launchers.
The Los Angeles School Police Department will keep the M-16 rifles and Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle received under a Federal program putting military hardware in the hands of domestic law enforcement agencies – even school police. They gave back the grenade launchers – likely M203 40mm systems described by the manufacturer as “an essential tool for every modern army.”
This battlefield-to-school-district weapons pipeline isn’t limited to the mean streets and classrooms of Los Angeles. School districts in at least 7 states are also equipped with weaponry that would make them the envy of some national armies. What is happening in America’s public schools?
As alarming as that story was, an issue with longer-term implications for public education was highlighted in the Winter 2015 edition of neaToday. This journal from the nation’s largest teachers’ union, billed as the source for information about “activism on key issues facing our 3 million members,” continues to promote the made-up construct they’ve been calling the “School-to-Prison Pipeline.”
Displaying the childlike quality of being simultaneously simplistic, self-aggrandizing, and just plain wrong, the author adds to the long list of essays claiming that our schools are throwing kids into the maw of the prison system. Here’s a quote from the article, from which one can deduce that the author missed the lesson about cause preceding effect:
“Fueled by zero tolerance policies and the presence of police officers in schools, and made worse by school funding cuts that overburden counselors and high-stakes tests that stress teachers, these excessive [discipline] practices have resulted in the suspensions, expulsions, and arrests of tens of millions of public school students, especially students of color and those with disabilities or who identify as LGBT.”
There it is: Funding cuts, high-stakes tests, and stressed-out teachers moved little Johnny from middle school to Cell Block 3. Never mind the well-documented breakdown of families and the declining roles of civic and religious institutions in children’s lives; today’s education establishment would rather claim complicity – and then ask for more funding.
We’re to believe that with more money public schools could solve so many of our social problems. One wonders when they have time for the Three R’s these days, with all the counseling, child-rearing, and instruction in social justice going on. The well-armed Los Angeles school district spends $30,000 per pupil per year. How much more do they want?
Naturally the article includes the requisite nod to the “disparate impact” on certain groups of enforcing standards of behavior. While national crime statistics show that “students of color” (and “adults of color,” for that matter) commit crimes at higher than average rates, the NEA-endorsed reaction to criminality in our classrooms is to blame the presence of police officers and play the race card.
And then there’s this: “Meanwhile, more than a quarter-million [students] were ‘referred’ to police officers for misdemeanor tickets, very often for offenses that once would have elicited a stern talking-to.” How quaint. A stern talking-to for students in districts known for being infested with youth gang members. In 2011, the government’s National Gang Center reported that in cities like LA, more than 30% of gang members were school-age. You can bring your stern talk to a gang fight if you want to, but…
The real problem here is one of culture. Not gang culture; education establishment culture. Their professional literature has been filled for decades with justifications for expanding the mandate of public schools into areas well beyond education. The institution has become less able to accomplish its primary mission – teaching – while building up the ranks of social workers to address non-academic related issues better handled elsewhere.
It’s not a “school-to-prison” pipeline; it’s a bad family- and dangerous community-to-prison pipeline. By trying to fill roles better occupied by family, civic organizations, and law enforcement, public schools have lost sight of their unique place in our communities.
Our education system should be refocused on meeting the educational needs of those children capable of functioning in a classroom. For many reasons, some children simply aren’t capable, and some make up what we call the criminal element. They should be treated as such, not seated next to a child – your child? – who has come to school prepared to learn.
In addition to private efforts to strengthen families and the civic life that underpins our communities, we need a parallel structure, outside the public school system, to address the challenges posed by so-called “at risk” youth, helping them to meet the expectations of society. Only when they are ready should they be reintegrated into public school classrooms.
No matter how well-intentioned, public schools can’t do it all. In the end, everyone is hurt in the attempt.

Ken can be reached at kengorrell@gmail.com.

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