The School-to-Prison Pipeline: A David vs. Goliath Saga

25 Apr The School-to-Prison Pipeline: A David vs. Goliath Saga

By Fermin Vasquez

Timothy Walker was suspended from school and sent home in eighth grade.

What did he do?

He spoke out of turn in class and got up without permission.

Under “zero-tolerance” school discipline policies, Walker’s behavior is labeled “willful defiance”— a catch-all cause for suspending students, sometimes applied to children as young as six years old.

In the last two decades, student suspensions have reached crisis levels. UCLA’s Civil Rights Project concluded that California public schools suspend more students every year than they graduate.

“Getting suspended doesn’t change behavior,” explains Walker, a junior at Crenshaw High School and Community Coalition youth activist.

“There are alternatives to suspensions,” adds Walker.  “That shouldn’t be the first option.”

A 2013 California Department of Education study revealed that students of color are suspended and expelled for minor infractions far more often than white students. And those who are suspended are five times more likely to drop out and end up in prison.

Grassroots organizations have challenged punitive school discipline policies, calling them a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“We are fighting against a series of school policies and practices that fail our students and disproportionately push young people of color out of school and into the criminal justice system,” says Jeremy Lahoud, Senior Associate with The Movement Strategy Center.

“After years of youth and community organizing, we’re starting to see a fundamental shift away from ‘zero tolerance’ policies at all levels of government toward more common-sense discipline that respects the dignity and humanity of students, especially students of color.”

Local Victories

Community Coalition served as an anchor organization in “Brothers, Sons, Selves,” an alliance of L.A. County community organizations working on a common agenda to improve the lives of young men.  Funded by The California Endowment, they convinced LA and Long Beach School Districts to adopt “School Climate Bill of Rights” policies that eliminate willful defiance as a basis for suspending students.

Statewide Success

Advocates have helped pass an unprecedented number of state laws that reflect the grassroots demand to end criminalization in schools. Last year, Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1729, which reduces school suspensions, and Assembly Bill 2616, which requires alternative discipline policies that use police as a last resort.

Federal Action

In January, the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged that racial discrimination in school discipline is a national problem. They issued a joint set of guidelines, launched data collection on school suspensions and encouraged local solutions that embrace equity and common-sense discipline.

And in February, the White House launched “My Brother’s Keeper,” an initiative that has generated hundreds of millions of dollars from foundations and business leaders to create opportunities for young men of color. Among the local examples the White House studied in shaping this program was L.A.’s “Brothers, Sons, Selves” coalition, reflecting the momentum created by community-driven reforms.

A Movement Led by Young People

Lian Cheun, Executive Director of Khmer Girls in Action, a community organization empowering young women of color, attributes the change in the narrative around school discipline to young people. “The untold story of this classic tale of David vs. Goliath is that young people are at the forefront of this movement,” she says.

“From L.A. to Washington, D.C., their call for changing punitive school policies is growing louder and louder,” Cheun explains.

Student leader Timothy Walker has gone from being suspended in eighth grade to meeting with California Governor Jerry Brown. Walker was one of six people, and the only student, to meet with the governor to discuss school discipline policy.

“I shared my story with the governor about what it means to be young person of color in South L.A. and how discipline policies such as ‘willful defiance’ push my peers out of school and into prisons,” Walker says.

Fermin Vasquez is a Communications Specialist at Community Coalition 

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