When Chrissy (@buzzingwithmsb) approached us to contribute to this blog series we didn’t hesitate. We are continuously looking for ways to contribute to, engage in, and learn from conversations around bias, racism, and social justice. As white females in higher education, we recognize our privilege and believe that it is our duty to contribute to these conversations and encourage our students, our colleagues, and our friends to do the same. Engaging in these conversations and learning spaces are what enables all of us to gain a greater awareness of our own biases and understand how they impact the students, children, and families whom we work with daily.
This post is in memory of Ivan Filiberto Manzano. Ivan was one of eight Mexican citizens killed in the mass shooting at an El Paso Wal-Mart. Ivan had a wife and two preteen children. He was a devoted husband, father, and son, an entrepreneur, and a business owner.
Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline
The school to prison pipeline is a term used for the militarization of schools funneling kids from classrooms into the criminal justice system. Discretionary violations – those where punishment is not mandated – disproportionality impact Black students overwhelmingly leading to persistent involvement with law enforcement.
What is disproportionality?
Disproportionality refers to the “overrepresentation” or “underrepresentation” of a particular demographic group relative to the presence of this group in the overall student population. In education, there is disproportionality in special education (Cruz & Rodl, 2018), in gifted programs (List & Dykeman, 2019), and in suspension and expulsion data (Mizel, Miles, Pederson, Tucker, Ewing, & D’Amico, 2016). While there is much controversy around how we define under and over representation, the data are clear that teacher bias, both explicit and implicit, influences recommendations of suspensions and expulsions as early as preschool (Gilliam, Maupin, Reyes, Accavitti, & Shic, 2016) and that Black boys are three times more likely to receive those suspensions and expulsions than white students. That’s just one way disproportionality shows up in schools and it has dire, life altering consequences for far too many.
Explicit Bias. These are the biases that we generally think of as racism (a belief that members of specific ethnic and/or racial groups are inherently inferior). These biases are consciously held and slow to change. People with explicit biases toward specific ethnicities, races, or gender norms tend to support punitive punishment structures such as zero tolerance (McIntosh, Girvan, Horner, & Smoklowski, 2014).
Implicit Bias. These biases are unconscious, deeply held, and often do not align with our declared beliefs (Kirwan Institute, 2018). These are the biases that are activated involuntarily. Everyone has implicit biases! We come to them from our upbringing, our lived experiences, and our professional training. We must work to bring our implicit biases into our consciousness in order to diminish the negative impacts on our learners, our colleagues, and our communities.
The Obama administration passed a regulation designed to ensure children of color were not disproportionality suspended, expelled, or identified for special education. However, the Trump administration’s Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, delayed implementation of this regulation until just now when a federal court ruled it must be put into effect immediately. This is a consistent and documented reality for kids and families in our educational system.
What does this look like in our schools?
First, let’s consider what the (pre)school to prison pipeline looks like in our schools. The pipeline can be seen in the School Resource Officers flanking the front doors and walking the halls of schools. It can be seen in zero tolerance policies and mandatory suspension/expulsion guidelines. It looks like moving kids to self contained classrooms with labels of emotional behavior disability without then providing them with access to the general curriculum and meaningful, intentional supports for self regulation. It can be found in calling families to come pick up their child early from school or telling preschool families their child “isn’t a good fit” for the program. It is evident in statistics showing that 70% of the students involved in school-related arrests or who were referred to law enforcement were Latinx or Black or that Black students were three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers (Lewin, 2012).
How can educators interrupt this school to prison pipeline?
We’ve come up with a place to start, a set of teacher guidelines. We recognize that this is only a beginning but we also know that change has to start somewhere. Change is gradual and pushing back against injustices is work that takes time and brings great challenges. We are here for the marathon, not a sprint.
Teacher Guidelines for Interrupting
Recognize, Reflect and Reframe Biases.
Recognizing your own biases and viewing experiences/interactions with students as opportunities, rather than challenges, can help shift or reframe your mindset (Hill, Newton, Williams, 2018). When you shift your mindset and seek out opportunities for learning and growth alongside your students, you will find it easier to build stronger and more effective relationships with your students and their families.
You may have heard the phrase “education not incarceration.” We have to teach academics, but we also must teach behavior, emotional regulation, self care, and boundary setting. Zero-tolerance policies do NOT teach. Instead we must recognize that students need to be explicitly taught the expectations and retaught with consistency. Instead of punishment consider providing school-based supports for struggling students whose behavior repeatedly seems to disrupt learning and engagement. Determine the function of the behavior. The key to interrupting the behavior cycle is replacing the undesired behavior with an acceptable alternative that still meets the learner’s needs. We have to teach the behaviors we want to see.
Stand Up, Don’t Be a Bystander.
If you hear or witness an act or micro-aggression (think back to explicit or implicit bias) interrupt the comment, action, or incident. Help the victim of the micro-aggression by making sure they are safe (physically and emotionally) and then be sure to address the other person(s). Remember, these are teachable moments. Be willing to learn. Your colleagues may call you in on your language too! That’s good – take the opportunity to grow!
Build trusting relationships with your students. Advocate for them and help them learn to advocate for themselves. Honoring the humanity in each of our students is evidenced in our advocating for them. Let them know relentlessly that they are worthy of being taught.
Focus on Strengths.
Every child. Every family…has strengths. Find them, embrace their strengths and build upon them. By recognizing your own biases, you are better able to reframe, find strengths, and stay clear of “cultural deficit thinking.” Remember just because your own experiences are DIFFERENT, doesn’t mean they are better or worse.
The school to prison pipeline is ours to dismantle. We must actively question punitive policies, our own implicit biases, and our deficit framings of kids and families. Here are some resources to learn more.
Jen Newton, PhD is an assistant professor in early childhood/early childhood special education (isn’t that a lot of words for what should be one field??). I talk a lot and have strong opinions – or so I am told.