Decolonize The Classroom Pt. 1: School To Prison Pipeline

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This piece was co-written with Felisa Concepcion, MSW

As COVID-19 has completely changed how the nation operates, educators and the public school system are trying to adapt to the new normal, distance learning. This new norm requires an endless schedule of professional development via Zoom. Recently, during a district-sponsored professional development, I listened to a presenter speak about limiting access to curriculum: disabling the audio version of the text and as well as limiting access to the online textbook. The Zoom was full of adults speaking smugly about how they can ensure students won’t cheat or that “they just haven’t learned how to cheat yet.” It always amazes me to hear how teachers constantly think the worst about our youth. All this after acknowledging that their textbook leaves out meaningful narratives and histories of BIPOC. These conversations are not rare however, I am often in staff meetings filled with teachers complaining about “these students” and how “they” can’t or won’t learn despite the fact we are not making education relevant. These negative feelings, the propensity to always see the worst in students often leads teachers to police students in carceral ways.

Education? Schools? Teachers? Oppressive? Racist? No way, those teachers, textbooks and school policies aren’t racist right? Let’s analyze a quote:

“Institutional Racism occurs within and between institutions. Institutional racism is discriminatory treatment, unfair policies and inequitable opportunities and impacts, based on race, produced and perpetuated by institutions (schools, mass media, etc.). Individuals within institutions take on the power of the institution when they act in ways that advantage and disadvantage people, based on race.”¹

Notice that “schools” is listed first when providing examples of institutional racism. The education system, starting as early as preschool, have discriminatory treatment, unfair policies, and inequitable opportunities that impact Black and Brown youth. The most noticeable policies are detention, suspension, and expulsion. Believe it or not, over 50,000 preschoolers are suspended each year, and millions of youth are suspended and expelled across the nation annually.² These policies were purposely created to oppress young Black and Brown children, designed to create and maintain the school to prison pipeline.

The School to Prison Pipeline

Zero-tolerance policies are school rules that are controlling, and when disobeyed, students are faced with punishments which are chastising and harmful.

Youth are often punished for behavioral issues and mental health challenges. They are punished for talking back to teachers and being “defiant”, “disobedient” or “disruptive.” During my time as an educator, I have seen a colleague kick out all eight of his Black students and tell his class “it’s always the Black kids making all the trouble.” That same teacher called the police last year requesting to have a student put into custody for a “behavioral” issue.

Punishing youth for disengagement and behavioral challenges is not the answer. Detention, suspension, and expulsion digs youth into a deeper hole of behavioral challenges, disengagement and low performance. These school rules and punishments do not support the youth in improving themselves, it does the complete opposite, negatively affecting the life outcomes of millions of Black and Brown children.

Detention, suspension, and expulsions are the epitome of the school to prison pipeline, and these rules and policies disproportionately affect Black youth. Black students make up 16 percent of public school enrollment yet make up 48 percent of suspended preschool children, 42 percent of K-12 suspension, and 31 percent of school arrests.³ In addition, Black students are three times more likely to get suspended and expelled than their white counterparts.⁴

Aside from zero-tolerance policies, schools literally have police officers patrolling the halls of the schools. School officers typically have little to no training in working with youth, resulting in school-based arrests. In the United States there are 14 million students in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker.⁵ Currently in the district I work in there is a 1: 1000 student to psychologist ratio, and a 1:700 student to counselor ratio. However, the district spends over $3 million on our own police department.

The zero tolerance policies and the excessive school campus policing reflects institutional and systemic racism. This is not something that is only in a few schools, it is in every single school across the United States of America. Our school systems are harmful and can be traumatizing experiences for our youth, for our children. Our education is an action of colonizing and oppression, and it is time for people to understand what they are signing their children up for.

The Lens of a Black Educator

As a Black teacher, systemic racism and oppression is evident in my everyday life and shows up at work almost every single day. This is war against Blackness, a war to uphold white supremacy at all costs.

There is a meme going around saying “teaching is to white women what policing is to white men,” and unfortunately this has too often been my experience in education. The profession of teaching is filled with white teachers, around 80% of our public teaching force is white, and we know that Black and Brown students are being impacted by the perception of how “defiant” these students are viewed by teachers and school administration.⁶ The demonization of Black and Brown people isn’t new, it goes back all the way to slavery and recently was on full display in the Amy Cooper situation in Central Park. America was “shocked” at how Amy Cooper could lie so easily in hopes to play the victim. My question however is how many Amy Cooper’s are educators?

This war isn’t just physical, even though we know the names of too many fallen comrades, this war has so many theaters: the education system, the judicial system, law enforcement, access to basic human rights (e.g., shelter, food/water, healthcare). Our students are forced to survive this war and given the side-eye if they have a mis-step.

How many students have had a mis-step? How many have had that mis-step ruin their educational experience? It couldn’t have been Brock Turner who as a student at Stanford decided he would sexually assault a young woman of color and only saw three months behind bars. Could it be the “affluenza” teen who killed four people while driving drunk? Yet when my 13 and 14-year-old students make a mistake it can cost them anything from a class suspension to incarceration.


“Whether it’s your skin color or the place, they reserve the right to police you and police your presence, and that implies that it’s a white space, and the condition for you being there is their comfort,” said Rich Benjamin, author of “Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America.”⁷

How often have those of us seen this unfold in the classroom? I work at a school where that has been a regular case for class suspension- yes you read that right. Children are being denied an opportunity to learn in the classroom for not “being prepared.” I have seen dozens of students get suspended for simply not having a pencil or their textbook. Now I am all for holding our students to a high standard but there is a huge difference between setting expectations and what is going on in so many classrooms.

It is our job as educators to teach, not just our content, but the whole of the child. To teach them how to be successful, prepared, and how to engage in learning. We should not punish them for being late, for being unprepared, or for not turning in an assignment. Even the way we are grading students goes into our colonized mindset where all students need to be able to work and express their knowledge in the exact same way. That isn’t realistic and it is time to move away from these racist practices.

We know that culturally relevant curriculum is a best practice yet we still have the same curriculum. We know restorative justice works and improves campuses, yet we suspend and expel. So why is it so hard for us to understand the racism embedded into the educational system?

“The schools we go to are reflections of the society that created them. Nobody is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free.”⁸

As Joe Biden has formally announced Kamala Harris as his running mate, it is important for us to be aware that Harris utilized the prison industrial complex to terror Black and Brown families. Harris herself wrote “my office prosecutes parents in a specialized truancy court we created that combines close court monitoring with tailored family services. To date, I have prosecuted 20 parents of young children for truancy. The penalty for truancy charged as a misdemeanor is a fine of up to $2,500 or up to a year of jail.”⁹ Many are calling this election the most important election in the U.S. history, yet our choices sit between 45 and an open advocate of using the education system as a means of enacting police terror. It is clear that our future will be challenging, and as we fight to dismantle and reconstruct our institutions, our education system needs to be included in those conversations and efforts.

[1]: Keith Lawrence and Terry Keleher. (2004). Structural Racism.

[2]: Rasheed Malik. (2017). New Data Reveal 250 Preschoolers are Suspended or Expelled Every Day.

[3]: ACLU. (2020). School to Prison Pipeline.

[4]: ACLU. (2020). School to Prison Pipeline.

[5]: ACLU. (2020). School to Prison Pipeline.

[6]: National Center for Education Statistics. (2020). Characteristics of Public School Teachers.,1%20percent%20of%20public%20school

[7]: Quentin Fottrell. (2020). How America perfected the ‘art of demonizing Black men’

[8]: Assata Shakur. (1988). Assata: An Autobiography.

[9] Kamala Harris. (2009). Truancy Cost Us All.

Written by

Black Educator — Music Lover — Former Athlete Turned Coach — Unapologetic — Political Scientist — African

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