Acton Institute Powerblog

Candidates must address school-to-prison pipeline

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Given the overpopulation of American jails and prisons, it would stand to reason that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump be pressed to explain how they would dismantle the unfortunate relationship between low-performing schools and the criminal justice system. Last February, The American Bar Association (ABA) released a report in the school-to-prison pipeline. According to the ABA, the pipeline is a metaphor for how the issues in our education system facilitates students leaving school and becoming involved in the criminal justice system. The process is a cycle of compounding issues ranging from low engagement, lack of relationships (including family breakdown), harsh discipline, and various problem with authorities in law enforcement and juvenile justice being involved in school discipline. For the ABA report, researchers conducted eight town hall meetings across the country to try and understand how the issue affected local communities by gathering testimony and exploring how bias plays a role in the system.

According to the report, minority populations are especially affected by the pipeline–a fact known across the academic world. Recent data from reports like this one show the magnitude of the problem, one that the ABA report says is “unacceptably large and out of proportion to the population of our young people.” The problem manifests itself during pre-k through high school years, from the juvenile justice system to adult prisons, and both for students of color and those with disabilities. For example, students of color, regardless of gender, were found to be disproportionately punished by harsher and more frequent methods, failed to graduate as often, had lower education retention and learning, and were more often referred to authorities for arrest.

The results are bleak for students who are part of multiple groups that experience discrimination, e.g., students of color who are also disabled. These students are labeled instantly by educators as those who will not succeed and will not respond positively to high expectations as a motivation to succeed. Research cited in the report found that teachers with negative attitudes toward minority students view them as “less intelligent and less capable of obtaining promising post-career prospects.” In other words, the anthropological lens through which teachers view students has significant bearing on education success. Students being treated with dignity, then, is a key to positive outcomes.

With centralized education policy, teachers anthropological attitudes towards minority students, and the lack of parental involvement in education, more and more students will be at risk of being in a school that is serving as a holding cell for the criminal justice system. If local schools had quality teachers, high standards, and parental involvement in discipline and education, the maltreatment of students in low-income districts would dissipate significantly. In the final analysis, we must recognize that there is only so much that policy can do. Without a call and appeal to the pursuit of moral virtue among teachers, parents, and students the best policy proposals will still fall short.

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Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.

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