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The School to Prison Pipeline is Detrimental to Our Students

Updated: Jul 23, 2019


School to Prison Pipeline: How Librarians and English Teachers Can Assist with This Epidemic

By: Kiera Vargas

Unfortunately, many minority students are still targets of the School-to-Prison Pipeline epidemic that is increasingly popular at poor, failing, at-risk schools. Studies and common-sense show that the lack of exposure may be reason as to why so many of our students struggle in school and truly understand the importance of obtaining an education. Lack of exposure centering on being exposed to people and cultures that they can identify is a common problem that mainstream does not always readily accept or understand. Even in this time era many of our students have uneducated parents who cannot articulate the importance of education. Many of our students of color have no clue of their self-worth which results in classroom and school issues that could be prevented. In this article we will discuss how librarians and English teachers could be a saving grace to such issues.

Dear Son,

You have so much potential. You have been trained right. You have so many people cheering you on. And most importantly you are extremely smart.

Take your time and complete things correctly the first time and you will see the difference it makes.

Give your all to everything and learn how to focus on what's important and do more listening than talking! I'm going to continue to push you because you are capable of continuing to make great grades and being amazing at whatever you elect to do in life.

Love,

Mom

This is an affirmation that I wrote my son. I do this often because as a young Black male, he has been one of those targeted Black boys that talks excessively in class and has gotten notes sent home stating “he is well-behaved, but he talks too much.” With each letter, I talked to him and I even do classroom drop-bys. I would watch the teacher from the lens of a parent and the lens of an educator. I would look at how each of his White teachers would become flustered with the Black boys.[1] I wrote notes and even offered suggestions to the teacher and the administration because I have always taught at predominately minority schools and I realized the problem each time I stepped foot in the class. The problem was and still is, students are bored and want to learn about themselves.[2] In an English or reading class, students want to learn about people that look like them and the history of people that look like them. Teachers are afraid to step out of their comfort zone, which results in disciplinarian actions. Obviously, this is not the reason in each case, but from my experiences as both a teacher and a parent I have witnessed such issues. I recall a previous colleague that shared she was a bit nervous discussing racial issues because she was a White “privileged”[3] woman and she could not relate to her students.

The School to Prison Pipeline “disproportionately affects Black students” by designing a “zero-tolerance discipline …punishment than white students in public schools.” [4]

This is done by SRO’s who are “sworn law enforcement officials with arrest powers”[5] who are coming into classrooms and responding to behaviors that in many cases a culturally diverse teacher could respond to by teaching effectively. An example is sending students out of class or writing discipline notes because a student talks “excessively.” Teacher education programs fail to teach their students that there is a lot more to teaching than reading and following the old school textbooks, creating lesson plans, and complaining about how students just do not have the skills needed in their particular grade level. There is a concern nationwide showing the need for improving school climate, and fortunately there is money that has been released to do such. Therefore, if money has been appropriated to assure school safety this should result in teachers working to have a more diverse classroom, right? Sadly, student morals are decreasing, students are dropping out at alarming rates, and students of color are still failing at alarming rates compared to their white counterparts.

This should no longer be a problem, particularly because of cases like Brown v. Board of Education[6], but the missing link in our classrooms are the lack of teaching students that they can achieve. This key component can be advantageous to prevent student dropout, improve test scores, and most importantly to assure students have the self-efficacy needed to grow in K-12, which would result in less disciplinarian actions. This simple, yet profound concept utilized in the classroom genuinely, will assist with seeing growth in our students. I feel that if it is practiced in a genuine manner, this could prevent so many from entering the School to Prison Pipeline.

Teaching is focused on following a curriculum that hurt many of our students and deeming them as low performing and then pushing them into the criminal justice system[7]. There can be many reasons, but my research is centered on books and literature that would attract more students of color to learn about themselves and see themselves in a positive light because our children only know what we teach them. “As school librarians we are responsible for developing the collections of our libraries. It is our professional responsibility to provide informational, instructional, and recreational reading resources that meet the needs of our patrons.”[8] They should also extend “the concept of books as mirrors” and “our collections should not only represent but also broaden the horizons of those we serve, providing a window into the lives of those who are different from us and doors that connect us and foster understanding.”[9]

In regard to schools dealing with School to Prison Pipeline issues stem because of so many entities, but the lack of diverse education is one of the problems. Many teachers cannot seem to deal with such observations because they cannot be open minded to see that instead of feeling sorry for our children who grow up in poverty or have challenges, “show them the beauty they possess inside...”[10]as mentioned in Whitney Houston’s Greatest Love of All. To do this and to lower this school to prison pipeline issue we need educators to believe, to teach them who they are and help them see the opportunities that they are capable of achieving. Books are key. “As school librarians, we are first and foremost teachers, responsible for providing our students with instruction across literacies that will allow them to be successful in college, career, and community.”[11] Additionally a “Culturally responsive [teacher] recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning, enriching classroom experiences and keeping students engaged.”[12]

Librarians and English teachers hold the keys to do this. Being culturally aware and objective to the needs of students while understanding that each student requires something different could prevent so many talented, smart children from advancing while also leaving them an imprint. An imprint of failure. This imprint hurts our children and if teachers focused more on understanding their students by reading about them and using their critical teaching lens to note students can conquer regardless of their background, this might save many from disciplinarian issues that are leading them to the justice system. This might assist the teachers with understanding that students are bored in the classroom constantly learning about people and things that they do not relate. One book comes to mind that depicts this is Justice Sotomayor[13]. Her story helps us see that we all are not necessarily brought up in an environment that embraces education. Students with disciplinarian problems are likely “problematic” because they are bored and teachers are complaining about their behaviors instead of taking time to learn their students and understand that each student learns differently and as an educator that is a role you play; understanding each students’ needs.

Growing up even in 2018, students of color are still tested on literature that do not include them. Teachers that I’ve talked to including a law school professor I once had are fearful to teach books about the history of Blacks, the Japanese internment, etc. and if only they could step out of their “privilege” just for a moment, they would see the power they have to stop such an epidemic. Therefore, when we look at the big picture of this issue, we as lawyers, librarians, and even educators can assist with this plight by changing the way education looks. Every student once had a dream. Every student once dreamt of being something and I am certain that being a product of the school-to-prison pipeline was not that something. As lawyers, we can reach out to read and talk to schools. As librarians we can take the time to showcase and purchase books that are geared toward the school climate. And as teachers we can learn to be open-minded and believe in our youth.


Kiera Vargas is a lawyer, librarian, and an educator. She has taught for over twelve years in various capacities; to include 6-12th grade and as a college lecturer.

[1] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/matthew-lynch-edd/black-boys-in-crisis-why_b_5828954.html

[2] http://www.nea.org/home/44609.htm

[3] https://nationalseedproject.org/images/documents/Knapsack_plus_Notes-Peggy_McIntosh.pdf

[4]

[5] https://www.aclu.org/issues/juvenile-justice/school-prison-pipeline/police-presence-schools

[6]

[7] https://ra.nea.org/business-item/2016-pol-e01-2/

[8] An Effective School Library Program…for Every Student. Audrey Church, 2016-2017. Knowledge Quest, Diversity Matters.

[9] An Effective School Library Program…for Every Student. Audrey Church, 2016-2017. Knowledge Quest, Diversity Matters.

[10] https://genius.com/Whitney-houston-greatest-love-of-all-lyrics

[11] An Effective School Library Program…for Every Student. Audrey Church, 2016-2017. Knowledge Quest, Diversity Matters.

[12] An Effective School Library Program…for Every Student. Audrey Church, 2016-2017. Knowledge Quest, Diversity Matters.

[13] Sotomayor, Sonia, 1954-. My Beloved World. New York :Knopf, 2013.


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