Education Deform: School-to-Prison Pipeline

As a preface here, as I have done many times as my role as writer for DV, I have to default to the local, as in, where you see fault lines and bright lines in a local situation, you can pretty much make the larger microcosmic statement about many things for a state, region, country, culture, what have you.

The School to Prison Pipeline has been written about many, many times, and my hat goes off to some of those writers:

The ACLU has it on its radar.

So does the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Hell, there is a School To Prison dot org.

Black Agenda Report covers this, too:

LA Schools Overrun by Cops

The Los Angeles Unified School District is among the most heavily policed in the nation, with Black students 29 times more likely than white students to be charged with disturbing the peace. “Are they trying to set students up for success and education, or are they trying to set them up to go to prison?” asked Ashley Franklin, an organizer with the Labor Community Strategy Center and one of the authors of a report titled “Black, Brown and Over-Policed in LA Schools.” Despite the heavy hand of the law, students have organized throughout the district. “Our youth have read their history and they’re fighting back,” said Franklin.

What I have going is that I am revolutionary and way beyond progressive, and, yes, I’ve paid the price for that as a perennial part-time worker, teacher, writer, editor, journalist, tutor, and shall I list more? Part of that voice box is a small gig in Spokane for a slick magazine which I get to write for putting down some pretty heavy and decent columns that even national magazines would have a hard time contextualizing and publishing, since we are a nation of snippet journalists, snippet students, snippet public service workers, snippet artists, you name it, it’s gotta be on a small screen with corresponding five dozen apps for which to buy more snippet junk in which to invest our own snippet energy for exhausting our own snippet ideas and snippet ethics.

Below, I give you the story, found at the web site, for the next month and a half at Spokane Living Magazine, starting on page 40.

Luckily, as part of my work researching this story, I also connected with a woman whose daughters and other relatives and friends’ children have experienced another sort of pipeline — racism in the schools, which leads to Diaspora as in brain drain and people of color DRAIN. Leaving Spokane, leaving the state of Washington.

Check out Virla’s Change.org petition:

As a mother of two young African-American students at Rogers High School in Spokane, WA, I want the superintendent of schools in Spokane and the State superintendent of schools to be notified of the bullying and racism culture at the predominantly African-American school. This has reached a point in my two daughters’ lives at Rogers where they are being harassed by students and by the teachers and administrators. In Spokane, African-American students are expelled and suspended three times the rate for white kids. My daughters have been in school to do well and have excelled at their studies, but the suspension of one and the harassment of the other are both violations of bullying codes and a culture of racism and protection of students who are displaying both racists comments and actions. Rogers needs a special counselor NOW to work as an advocate of all students, including African American students and other minority students. That counselor should and must be a minority, preferably an African-American recruited to deal with this culture of racism and selective persecution of African-American students. This petition may sound like a parent overly concerned with her daughters’ well being, or even knee-jerk, but this high school is in dire need of fixing, like many in the state of WA. This petition is to address my specific concerns and the general concern around the well-being and equal treatment of minority students in this public school.

Please note that Virla took this to the local daily, Spokesman Review, EIGHT years ago: “District Bans Two Parents from Schools for 1 Year.”

Well, Virla and I talked, and I hope to find her battle in the NEXT issue of the magazine I write for, around Smart Justice and no-new-jails. It’s so queer, no, how when you are a person “of color” who has backbone, the powers either try to shut you up or lock you out or literally lock you up. Is America racist? That’s a silly question!

As I have stated before, if we actually enlisted a Studs Terkel approach on all things around journalism, narrative,  looking at people as the center of the story …  or how about just reading Linh Dinh’s stuff and having him sent to a thousand classrooms, PK12 and higher ed collectively, well, this country would be IMPROVED. Check out his Postcard from the End of America series, here, at DV.

.What I bring to the interview is respect. The person recognizes that you respect them because you’re listening. Because you’re listening, they feel good about talking to you. When someone tells me a thing that happened, what do I feel inside? I want to get the story out. It’s for the person who reads it to have the feeling … In most cases the person I encounter is not a celebrity; rather the ordinary person. “Ordinary” is a word I loathe. It has a patronizing air. I have come across ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. (p. 176).
― Studs TerkelTouch and Go: A Memoir

What would Studs have to say about Obama, and his little microcosmic portion of his mealy mouth rhetoric painting the guy’s total being with little words spoken here, little ones spoken there? Here, from Socialist Worker

It wasn’t a grand speech. Rather, it was a chummy discussion between the president of the United States and a gathering of business leaders at an event called the “Wall Street Journal CEO Council.” But when future historians search for a way to summarize the Obama years, they’d do well to ignore his more poetic speeches that have so little to do with the man’s actual actions, and focus instead on these words:

When you go to other countries, the political divisions are so much more stark and wider. Here in America, the difference between Democrats and Republicans–we’re fighting inside the 40-yard lines…

People call me a socialist sometimes. But no, you’ve got to meet real socialists. (Laughter.) You’ll have a sense of what a socialist is. (Laughter.) I’m talking about lowering the corporate tax rate. My health care reform is based on the private marketplace. The stock market is looking pretty good last time I checked.”

It was a touching ruling class moment. At a time of bitter partisan warfare in Congress and frequent mudslinging by business executives, a bunch of CEOs were able to sit down with their president and realize that they really aren’t so different after all. Together, they shared a good laugh at the idea held by many ordinary people in both parties–that Obama and Corporate America are somehow on different sides.

What has this man, Obama, really done for the unemployed black youth? What has he done to help resurrect Detroit from the ashes of the devil financieers? What has Obama done to stand your ground against gutting education, gutting social and community welfare? Right. I bring you the school to prison pipeline, in Spokane, WA, emblematic of a pipeline erected throughout the land.

Smart Justice … where oh where have all the people of color gone …

By Paul K. Haeder

With 40 percent of wealth going to the top 1 percent, public services are drying up from lack of revenue and more and more young people find themselves locked out of the dream of getting a decent education or a job while being robbed of any hope for the future. – Henry Giroux

Connecting the dots and embracing the realities of causation can emancipate an entire community, the whole state, or our nation, for that matter. It takes more than just a village to raise our children. The reader might need some bullet points on what it really takes to develop all children?

  • Early education programs that work, i.e. resources such as culturally-appropriate curriculum, healthy bodies, loving para-educators, resilient directors and involved families.
  • Smaller classrooms and “reality education” tied to developing critical thinking, cracking the books covering the great subjects of our time and navigating a tough job market and economic climate.
  • Better and connected junior and high school teachers who have been trained in multiculturalism and have multiple contexts from which to guide, mentor, teach. That means our teachers have to come from the very neighborhoods and ethnic and racial backgrounds of their students —  a national student population that will be in 20 years 45 to 50 percent youth of color.
  • More jobs skills and life coaching with strong safety nets around behavioral health and drug, alcohol and sex training that works, that’s real.
  • Stronger cultural engagement tied to participatory arts and sports.
  • Better  families that aren’t broke (financially)  or broken-down emotionally.
  • Better and more involved  businesses and leaders in the community that have vision and a communitarian spirit.

Sound hippie like? Well, think of the Spokane County Sheriff: “The criminal cycle starts out for people at a young age,” says two-term Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. “The key is early education, and poverty is another key indicator of future criminality.  Three things cause most people to go to jail: lack of education, lack of employment or job history, and lack of a home. People need a place to sleep in order to get a job and go to school.”

The Sheriff first started policing in Spirit, Wyoming, but he is thinking about staying the course in Spokane politics for another 8 years, hoping to get a graduate degree and one day teach youth, at a community college. He may be at the helm of some of the directives around the “big bad” Spokane County jail, but he continues touting his voluntary work reading to Head Start classes.

“Early education and reading, they are the best indicators of future crime, in my opinion,” the Sheriff says.

If You Deconstruct Safety Nets, Youth Will Flounder

One truism is solid when it comes to what many in so many professions – cops, judges, teachers, sociologists, elected officials, psychologists, and even economists – see as our biggest challenge: our youth are inheriting the dysfunction of an economy that is creating fewer opportunities for good work. Additionally, schools and schooling have become this giant experiment with so many non-experts chiming in on what needs to be done to the curriculum and how to privatize our bricks and mortar reality of PK12 and even college institutions.

“Schools are a microcosm of society,” says Rosey Thurman, lawyer for Team Child, a statewide organization dedicated to empowering youth to not get kicked out of the system. “I don’t envy the teachers, don’t get me wrong. Many of my clients are getting kicked out because they have mental health issues.”

Unfortunately for Thurman, who’s been at this job in Spokane for 17 years and has roots in Chicago, her clients are youth who come from homes that are wrecked, broken or bloodied by violent parents. They come to school with development disabilities and mental health issues. Others are living on the streets or couch surfing. Many youth do not have parents around, or those that do, they have them in name only – mothers and fathers who have checked out with booze, drugs and criminality.

“I’d say that if you were homeless, you’d expect to have a few mental health issues,” she says. Her client load is around 250 youth a year, and she has all sorts of cases, including emancipation requests and tribulations around getting schools to “take back” young people. She is not afraid to say that the school resource officers in some Spokane schools are “heavy handed, pushing youths in diversion programs for carrying a pocket knife at school or smoking a little pot.”

Thurman reiterated a case she was working on where the smart parent doubted the suspension of her high schooler on marijuana smoking. The mother had not one but three drug tests ordered on her son, all coming back clean for all drugs, including pot. The child was reinstated, but this is an example, Thurman points out, of a “highly-involved parent advocating for her son.”  In most cases, the suspended child loses valuable classroom time, and even five days but certainly two weeks of suspension are enough to sink a child’s entire school year.

It’s easy to blame the schools, the teachers. In this day and age, teachers are pariahs for the misinformed public and deluded political class. The Los Angeles school district recently fired thousands of teachers and librarians in lieu of iPads. Even so, teachers got partial pay vouchers for 30 percent of their wages in sunny California.

We have to wonder what message this sends to our youth? It’s not unusual, as Thurman and the Team Child office experience here, or in Seattle or Yakima, to see teachers not following IEPs or IBPs – individual education or behavioral plans — for youth who have been diagnosed with behavioral disabilities.

For Todd Eklof, Spokane Unitarian Universalist minister and one of the many individuals representing over 30 groups around a program in Spokane that is being touted as Smart Justice, he knows the value of early intervention in young people’s lives.

“We were one of the first organizations to sign onto Smart Justice,” Eklof says. “As a church, the Unitarian Universalists are interested in justice as equality. We believe that justice has to be distributive, and has to take into account poverty and racial disproportionality.”

Pipelines – From Cradle to School to Jail

The Unitarian, the lawyer Thurman and others, including James Wilburn, new director of Spokane’s NAACP, and Pastor Happy Watkins, head of the New Hope  Baptist Church, are clear when they speak to anyone, let alone a journalist, that Spokane is in fact not unlike other communities that have this “gateway to the school to prison pipeline.”

“Spokane has a built-in mechanism or system that over incarcerates young black youth,” says Wilburn, who is at Rogers High School as a retention specialist, a program he helped develop  at Lewis and Clark high school, called achievement gap intervention. “It’s not the weather that keeps African Americans from settling or staying in Spokane, it’s the cultural aspect. Spokane is not welcoming to people of color.”

So, in one sense, there are two pipelines – the school-to-prison one that facilitates, as study after study has borne out, the juvenile and adult criminal justice “systems” meting out harsher penalties to black youth (males at the highest levels) and also providing fewer services to get those now in the system back on track, like those Sheriff Knezovich cites as vital: job skills, housing assistance, mental and drug/alcohol programs. The second pipeline is this Diaspora of both black and white youngsters our of River City, because there is no social life for youth, which Watkins says “is at an all-time low.”

In a city with four universities, a military presence, the number of African Americans leaving is alarming to both Wilburn and Pastor Watkins.

“There’s racial profiling going on in our schools,” Wilburn says. “African American youth are suspended from school at a rate three times higher than Caucasians. When the criminal justice system – police, what have you – locks young black males up for minor offenses and they spend more time in jail or juvenile detention than whites, what message does that send our community?”

The message is clear – there are only about 22 African American congregations in Spokane, ranging from 300 to 40 or fifty congregants. “These 22 churches are also in a survival mode,” Watkins says. “Any extra money in the beneficent fund for housing or clothing to help our congregation, well, we are strapped.”

He reiterated that just the previous Sunday before interviewed for this story, “… a young man came up to me after the service asking for some help with groceries.”

For Watkins, who’s famous for his “I Have a Dream” speech renditions, this is the groundwork of those two pipelines being laid down: “My hope is the criminal justice system becomes fair. That means the same sentence for a black person as a white or Asian person. Look, our kids don’t see a value in the education system. They don’t work as hard to make an effort to succeed. It’s really concerning to me that they don’t see productive citizens of color in Spokane – simple things like at the grocery stores, or selling cars, or in the office. Even in City Hall. There is little for them to see as models to illustrate the importance of striving for an education.”

For lawyers like Breean Beggs and Center for Justice attorney Julie Schaffer, this issue of mounting numbers of people in jail for non-violent offenses, for missing court dates or not paying old fines, well, it’s one reason they have dedicated themselves to work on a year-long campaign of Smart Justice.

The City With Nothing To Do for Youth Reaps What it Sows

Still, Watkins says that “it’s painful to see these young people having to pay attorney’s fees or the mounting cost of tickets.” The systems puts them behind the proverbial eight-ball, and many never recover.

The old adage about Spokane not having enough for young people to do or enough culture to keep them here is not just a teen’s perennial complaint.

I was at the Terrain Art Show, a one-day affair October 4, now in its sixth iteration. From 5 pm to 1 am  people lined up to listen to bands, see art in both two dimensions and 3-D as well as partake in digital and film projects, live performances and food. Impressive, but many of the youth I talked to the day before and the day of the event hadn’t heard a thing about it. And Terrain is a youth-oriented show, limited to 35 years or younger as artists!

“There’s nothing to do around here if you are a teen or twenty-something …. It’s an old foggy town. Great if you are into soccer, but what about the rest of us? People running Spokane are suburbanites, totally lacking in youth cred. Cold, conservative, lots of churches and bars.”

I am not pushing causality, but the less there is for youth to do, well, even the CIA studies that – countries with the highest youth population (16-30), and they also look at the male demographic closely, the more chances of civil unrest. When you are young, out of work, and see older people’s decision-making processes in all levels of our society create barriers (poverty) as they accumulate wealth, there is immediate frustration … which can lead to violence.

Unfortunately, the economics of a struggling middle class and more people living in or near poverty levels play into many families’ collective mental dynamics.

One Person’s Panhandler Is Another Person’s Child

There are more and more homeless youth in Spokane, and more  troubled youth in the school system and hanging on the streets. Schools have become intolerant and incapable of dealing with children whose troubles in fact lead directly back to those sometimes violent or missing parents. We are perceived to be a city that basically sees street youth as a few notches above al Qaeda as seen on Fox News.

Young people have to have cities that respond to their cultural and inspirational needs. Cities need economic development that addresses employment and service learning opportunities for young people. And, affordable housing.

I’ve studied this as both a police beat reporter in El Paso, Tucson, Southern Arizona, Mexico and as a journalist in Spokane and Seattle, and as a college teacher working at universities, community colleges, military bases, prisons, and alternative high schools.  The wrong methods are clear: harassing youth, blaming them for bad parents, bad communities and bad opportunities. Then, we lock them up as delinquents and finally move juveniles into the Big House. This warehousing of “adults” for non-violent offenses is costing communities big time.

It costs entire families their futures. Plus, to use plain old arithmetic for Spokane’s taxpayer, as Beggs and Schaffer say in unison, “the criminal justice system – judges, courts, cops, probation officers, the jail, etc. – costs us seventy cents for every dollar of tax revenue.”

In an upcoming  article, we’ll look at the Smart Justice platform, the no-new jail movement, and the positions law enforcement folk like Ozzie Knezovich and Lt. Sarber have compared to the ideas of criminal justice wonks like Doug Marlowe from the University of Pennsylvania. We’ll look at the three-judge Spokane County Criminal Justice Commission’s recent findings. We’ll even hear what TV star Judge Joe Brown has to say about the prison-to-school pipeline in his “spare the rod, spoil the child” sermons.

For now, Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane ends this story with the words of its director, Liz Moore, yet another person tied to the groups fighting for Smart Justice Spokane:

“We need to stop jailing people for driving with licenses suspended, unless it’s connected with driving under the influence. We need to stop jailing people for failure to pay court fines. We need to use common sense alternatives like electronic home monitoring for nonviolent offenders so that people can stay employed, stay housed, not have their kids enter the foster system.”

She’s on board with strong mental health courts and mental health treatment programs since about one-third of people in the county jail have some form of mental illness and/or are on psychotropic medications.

“These are just the low-hanging fruit, and these changes alone would do a great deal of good for our community,” Moore adds. “When these commonsense obvious changes are not in place, it makes sense to ask: What are other changes do we need to make that maybe are less obvious to people who aren’t feeling the impact? When we see that African American and Native American men are over-represented in our county jail, we have to say together that ending racial disproportionality in our criminal justice system is absolutely necessary.”

We’ll look at those policies and procedures that result in those disparities. The Sheriff and Pastor Watkins agree on one thing, though:  “We need to work on the family, kitchen table and the home.”

Paul Kirk has been a journalist since 1977. He's covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/community journalism situations in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's been a part-time faculty since 1983, and as such has worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, as a private contractor-writing instructor for US military in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Washington. Read other articles by Paul.