The “school to prison pipeline” symposium was held at the Wayne State Law School on March 25. The event focused on a process that is used by some public schools to expel minority students by reprimanding them harshly for minor offences.
Keynote speaker Damon T. Hewitt, who is a director at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, addressed the packed Spencer M. Partrich Auditorium about the racial inequities in both public and charter schools.
One problem Hewitt addresses is the referral systems that schools use to discipline students. How severe a punishment to hand down by school administration is subjective and is in “the eye of the beholder,” Hewitt said.
He said African Americans make up for 17 percent of the public school system and account for 34 percent of all suspensions. Most suspension referrals given to minority students are for minor offences. Offences such as being “disruptive, talking loudly, failing to make eye contact and improperly addressing teachers.”
Another issue that Hewitt addressed was the use of full-time police officers in schools. They bring arresting and frisking procedures used in the streets into the class room.
“When you put that mind set in an education system it can be devastating. It just doesn’t work it just doesn’t fit.” Hewitt says.
Hewitt gives an escample of a school in Jacksonville, Florida that left its snack room unlocked and was raided by students. Although security cameras showed the groups of thieves were racially diverse, only black students were questioned about the incident.
After the questioning, 18 African-American students were taken to the police station on a bus, including a student that was absent the day of the incident. Hewitt said the stolen snacks added up to less than 60 dollars. The charges on the students were eventually dropped.
“All this does is cost us a lot of money and it’s causing a lot of harm.” Hewitt said.
According to the America Civil Liberties Union: “… a result of test-based accountability regimes such as the No Child Left Behind Act, schools have an incentive to push out low-performing students to boost overall test scores. One study found that schools meted out longer suspensions to students who performed poorly on standardized tests than to high-performing students for similar offenses.”
One solution that Hewitt discussed was for teachers to adopt a positive behavior support system into their classrooms and not reprimanding students for minor infractions. The PBS system is a way for teachers to reach troubled students through positive reinforcement and positive behavior interventions.
“You cannot be a teacher that punches in and punches out. You have to commit the energy.” Elaine Wilson said. Wilson is a WSU alumna and the Governance Committee Chair of the Cody Rouge Community Action Alliance.
Wilson taught a student who frequently missed class but would excel in a classroom-run mock court trial. Instead of reprimanding, she began to build trust with the student to find the root of the problem. Wilson discovered the high school student had to work during the day to support his mother, who was ill at the time.
According to Wilson, she was able to get the student proper help because she put the time in to get to know each individual student.
“They all want to be heard,” Wilson said.