In "School-to-Prison Pipeline", Fault Lines examines whether the combination of increased police presence in schools and zero tolerance policies are putting students on a path to being locked up. The episode was produced by David Enders, who spent many hours researching the system that drives students from school to courthouses, and from courthouses to prisons. Below he writes about his experiences and what he discovered along the way:
The term “school-to-prison pipeline” has traditionally described the cycle in which generations of young male minorities, growing up in segregated neighborhoods with high historical rates of incarceration, follow in the footsteps of previous generations. They attend undersupported and underperforming public schools that failed previous generations of students and predictably end up in the criminal justice system after exhausting what few resources are available to them at the school level and in the juvenile system.
In the past two decades, the phenomenon has come to incorporate a sharp increase in the number of police in schools and the number of students receiving citations that send them to court. Just as minorities are overrepresented in the prison system, justice at the school level has also targeted minorities disproportionately.
Under President Barack Obama, the Justice Department has for the first time identified and decried this trend, which the federal government has in part helped encourage. Since the early 1990s, the federal government has doled out millions in grants to help school districts hire police officers. The program had shrunk in scope in recent years, but was increased by the Obama Administration after the Newtown school shootings in 2012.
The federal government’s acknowledgement of the phenomenon is hardly an example of it taking initiative. The federal government’s guidelines are so far non-binding; it remains to be seen if districts are penalized for failing to comply.
Fault Lines, Producer
Filming in schools and prisons in Texas in February and April, we attempted to illuminate this phenomenon. We chose Texas because it’s one of the states that has ticketed the greatest number of students in recent years, and because of a complaint public interest groups filed with the Department of Justice last year against a Dallas County court system that has a reputation for strictly handling truancy. The complaint accuses the court system of unfairly targeting minorities, as well as levying unreasonable punishments.
Some of the students we spoke to, including one who owed nearly $8,000, had been arrested from school and taken to court. They found it counterintuitive that a system intended to keep them in school would actually take them out of it in that manner.
The Justice Department statistics also highlighted the use of exclusionary justice in schools—either out of school suspensions or removal of students to schools designated as sites for misbehaving students, sometimes referred to as alternative learning centers. Texas makes extensive use of both, and we followed the “pipeline,” talking to students who said they had been removed to alternative learning centers, which one school police officer referred to as “a mild form of incarceration.” Others complained that students fell behind academically in these settings because the courses were less rigorous at the alternative schools.
At the Darrington Maximum Security Prison near Houston, we met inmates who described their experiences with alternative learning centers as “doing time.” The majority of the prisoners we met said they had also been suspended from school.
“It really felt like it was preparing me to mess up some more,” said Jimarquez Holland, a 21-year-old serving four years for burglary. “Because I had in my head, if I mess up, all them dudes gone to alternative school for six weeks. I can do that.”
Holland’s mother, Rolanda Fountain, said her son had generally done well in school, but that run-ins with school discipline and the juvenile justice system prevented him from graduating.
“He had letters from his school, but [the judge] didn’t care, and to me, it was more like it’s another black kid, throw him away. You take their life away, and you knew he was going to graduate.”
Fountain’s feelings about how race and the normalization of kids going to court played into the equation were echoed repeatedly as we discussed this topic with teachers, school administrators, civil rights activists, and police officers.
“We talk about school-to-prison pipeline, we don’t want students to become accustomed to going to court, to having a case, to having a warrant out there for your arrest. It desensitizes those folk,” said Yvonne Williams, a judge in Austin who has taken a different approach to truancy cases than her colleagues in Dallas. She often sends students back to a court run by students at their school, rather than on to harsher consequences, and encourages parents to leave their children at school, even if they’re coming to court for a ticket their child received.
“Parents would come to court for the elementary kids with the child, so I’ll have this six year old all dressed up, and it would bring tears to your eyes, and they have no earthly idea why they are in court,” she said. “The child needs to be in school.”
Like many others, Williams questioned why school counseling budgets aren’t increased along with the funds for police.
“If I have these tickets being generated at a large rate form the schools as opposed to resolving the issues internally, why don’t your counselors, your assistant principals, why don’t they take care of that?”