Presidential Candidates’ Approaches to School-to-Prison Pipeline Fall Short, Advocates Say

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Presidential Candidates’ Approaches to School-to-Prison Pipeline Fall Short, Advocates Say

Auditi Guha

"Our hope is that the next president will focus more attention on youth incarceration so that these often overlooked members of society get the fair shot at opportunity that all Americans deserve," said Liz Ryan, president and CEO of Youth First.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump last week made a promise to Black voters to be their “greatest champion,” offering them a “new deal” based on three promises: “safe communities, great education, and high-paying jobs.”

Hours after rallying for the Black vote in the battleground state of North Carolina, Trump reportedly kicked a Black man out of the rally, calling him a “thug,” according to news reports.

But in his speech, Trump said he will appoint “a commission to investigate the school-to-prison pipeline and to shut it down and create a new pathway that leads from a great education to a great job.”

Not much else is available on his website about ending the school-to-prison pipeline, which stands for the disproportionate rate that students of color are policed, punished, and funneled out of their classrooms and enter the criminal justice system. However, earlier this year, he said in an interview with Sean Hannity that the U.S. Department of Education “can be largely eliminated.” As Casey Quinlan reported for ThinkProgress, “That would do the opposite of aiding inner city schools. Eliminating the department would take away much-needed resources from the struggling schools that need them the most.”

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In an interview with Rewire, Liz Ryan, president and CEO of Youth First, a national advocacy campaign working to end youth incarceration, raised concerns about how little attention the school-to-prison pipeline has received during this election cycle.

“Our hope is that the next president will focus more attention on youth incarceration so that these often overlooked members of society get the fair shot at opportunity that all Americans deserve,” Ryan said.

Trump’s campaign did not respond to two emails asking for more information on his plan to stop the pipeline.

In a September speech at the Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy, a charter school, Trump said he will be “the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice,” and proposed pushing $20 billion toward the issue so that “every single inner city child in America who is today trapped in a failing school” has the right to attend the school of their choice.

“School choice is vital to reverse inequities in education and failing government schools in Democrat-controlled inner cities. According to the National Assessment of Education Progress, only one in six African-American students in the eighth grade are considered proficient in math and reading,” Trump’s education platform states.

Giving parents the power to choose the school that’s right for their child is one step toward ending the pipeline, but educators suggest several approaches be taken, including changing disciplining practices, expanding teacher involvement, and limiting law enforcement in schools.

Critics of Trump’s school choice plan point out that he favors charter schools and vouchers, neither of which have been proven to benefit the public school system or student outcomes. While Trump’s proposals continue a conversation on the topic, it does not provide the way, educators say.

Trump’s opponent, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, details several steps on how she would dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline on her website, by providing $2 billion in funding to reform disciplinary policies in schools, hiring school climate support teams for districts that have higher suspension and arrest rates, expanding evidence-based behavioral support programs, increasing the number of teachers of color, and providing training on classroom climate and restorative justice.

“African American boys are three times more likely to be suspended and African American girls are six times more likely to be suspended than their white peers … this disparity begins as early as preschool,” her policy proposal states.

As Rewire previously reported, some juvenile justice experts and educators feel Clinton’s education agenda, titled Breaking Every Barrier, falls short, landing somewhere along the spectrum from “incomplete” to “disingenuous.”

Clinton could have addressed it while in Congress if the issue was on top of her agenda, rather than unveiling it a few days before the Democratic primary, critics have said.

Others pointed to her support of sweeping crime bills during Bill Clinton’s presidency and a disparaging 1996 speech that referred to “gangs of kids” as “super predators,” which she apologized for earlier this year when approached by a Black Lives Matter activist in South Carolina.

The encounter sparked a conversation about Clinton’s role in the expansion of racial profiling and mass incarceration in the United States, and her ability—if elected—to deal with the school-to-prison pipeline.

The Black Lives Matter movement has shone light on how students of color become the victims of a system that is geared more toward criminalization of bad behavior rather than restorative justice. That’s just what high school teacher Jesse Hagopian spoke about at a teachers’ rally in Seattle last month.

Black students in the diverse Seattle Public Schools are suspended four times the rate of white students and Hagopian said he advocated for alternatives to the punitive measures that compound the school-to-prison pipeline problem there, as well as the need for a culturally relevant curriculum focused on systemic racism, slavery, and contributions of Black people in the United States.

Zero-tolerance policies in schools criminalize minor infractions, and police in schools lead to students being disciplined for behavior that should be handled inside the school, all of which makes students of color especially vulnerable, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“The ACLU believes that children should be educated, not incarcerated. We are working to challenge numerous policies and practices within public school systems and the juvenile justice system that contribute to the school to prison pipeline,” the organization states in an online statement.

Transforming the way discipline is approached in schools is a component of Clinton’s agenda. Overly punitive disciplinary practices make schools worse, not better, and are associated with lower academic performance and higher rates of dropout, she states on her site. Trump has not addressed discipline directly on his site or on the campaign trail.

The number of high school students suspended or expelled over the course of a school year increased roughly 40 percent between 1972 and 2009, while the racial disciplinary gaps also widened, wrote Rachel M. Cohen in an article for the American Prospect.

During the 2013–2014 school year, Black students were found nearly four times more likely than white students to receive an out-of-school suspension. Similar disparities held true even for Black preschoolers. Advocates have pressured school officials and policymakers to end these suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests, which they say push too many students into the criminal justice system, Cohen further explained.

“We treat youth of color more harshly and punitively, and as a result they are much more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, even when charged with similar offenses,” Youth First’s Ryan told Rewire. “We believe in empowering local communities to take concrete steps to change this, and the next president should create financial incentives for localities to reduce suspensions, expulsions and arrests of youth in schools; provide states with financial support to dismantle the youth prison model by closing youth prisons and creating community based alternatives to incarceration.”