Our Children Are Watching Us


For the past few months, I have watched my community close five schools while talking about a $30 million jail expansion.  I know those two are separate in the life of our governing bodies and in regards to funding, but far too often they are not separate in the life of a child.  I recently read an article in our local paper that quoted a county commissioner as saying,  “We don’t have an education problem from the standpoint that that’s the reason kids are going to jail … You have a family breakdown.  This is a national problem, as well as in Madison County. So at the end of the day, our major problem is a spiritual problem that we have within our own community.”  I understand that he is elected to focus on county issues, not specifically education issues, but I am greatly concerned that elected officials do not understand that a large predictor of incarceration is how literate our students are. Spirituality, or religiosity, is too subjective to use as a predictor.  It means different things to different people.  Furthermore, have you driven through this town on Sunday morning? I would guess that at least 50% of Jackson attends some sort of religious activity at least once a week.  Spirituality seems to actually be a strength in this community.  Does spirituality help?  Absolutely.  But the lack of, or perceived lack of, spirituality isn’t the problem.  Our problem is that we aren’t investing enough in our children.  They are not our priority.  Oh and that apparently some of our elected officials don’t understand why those same children end up incarcerated.  A wise friend once told me, “Christianity has hands and legs.  It means ‘doing something’.”  Closing schools and building jails at the same time is sitting on those hands with our legs propped up on the ottoman while we watch our children, and ultimately our community, continue to struggle.

The school-to-prison pipeline is defined as “increasing patterns of contact students have with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems as a result of the recent practices implemented by educational institutions, specifically zero tolerance policies and the use of police in schools”.  This pipeline disproportionately affects people of color. Statistics show that Black students are 3 times more likely than White students to be suspended for behavioral issues.  The Department of Education reports that in 2011, in our local school system, 60.4% of the students were Black.  However, Black students made up 73.5% of in-school suspensions and 78.6% of out-of-school suspensions.  Expulsions were more equally balanced with 57.9% of expulsions affecting Black students.  However, let us remember that no child can be educated if they aren’t actually in school.

Many factors help contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.  First, we have under-funded schools that are full of inadequate resources for students. This hits all too close to home for our community where we have allowed schools to begin to fall in on our children’s heads…literally.  Additionally, if a student is not reading on grade level by the end of 3rd grade, they are four times less likely to graduate.  Those that don’t graduate are 63 times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates.  We must fund our schools, first and foremost.  

Secondly, we have a number of elected officials that are simply out of touch with certain areas of our community.  Case in point…a current school board member has had the picture on the left posted on his FB page for almost a year.



Just in case you think a mother would actually allow her child to hold a sign like this or that any child would want to hold a sign like that, the original photo is on the right.

A FB friend of his pointed out that this was Photoshopped.  He didn’t remove it.  I sent him an email asking him to remove it and telling him why it was a problem.  He didn’t remove it.  This is someone who is making decisions for children that look just like this young man.  In fact, this particular school board member has been making decisions for the children of Jackson for many, many years.  Actually a local high school full of students that look like this young man was just voted to be closed, failed by our community once again.  This school board member voted yes to that closure.  Obviously.  If you think he is alone in his thinking, you are wrong.  Others are just savvy enough not to post it where the public can see it.

Another factor is the overwhelming amount of test-based accountability in our schools now.  Not only does this lead to teacher burnout, but it often leads to focusing on the students that are going to help boost those test scores.  All too often, struggling students are left behind.  See my blog on testing and why I left teaching if you want to know more about the effects of that beast.

Possibly the largest factor on the school-to-prison pipeline is harsh zero-tolerance discipline policies that have led to many students entering the juvenile justice system. These students quite often face barriers upon re-entry into the traditional school systems. However, the U.S. spends almost $70 billion annually on incarceration, probation and parole.  That funding number was increased by 127% between 1987 and 2007.  During that same time period, funding for higher education was increased just 21%.  As a country, we are sending the message that we prioritize incarceration over education.  I’m not sure how much of that we can fix on a national level here in Jackson, but I am certain we can fix it on a local level.  More than that, we must fix it.  Our community depends on it.  I don’t think any of us want to live in a community that prioritizes incarceration over education for any child.   

I believe that if you are going to complain about it though, then you must be willing to come up with solutions to fix it.  Here are mine:

  • Get actively involved with our public school students.
    • Volunteer: Reach out to local schools to help tutor.  One-on-one time is something that many educators are unable to give as often as is needed.  The community can fill that need.
    • PIE Partners: We have less than 30 schools in our system and hundreds of businesses.  Many of those businesses are already involved with a local school as a PIE Partner.   Bravo!  If your business isn’t, start the process now. Encourage your employees to volunteer by giving incentives.  It could change the life of a child and improve your company’s culture.
    • Mentor: I am sure there are many mentoring opportunities available in our community that I am unaware of and I will update this as they come to my attention.  One opportunity to mentor I am currently aware of is through TNAchieves: https://tnachieves.org/a-mentor
  • Be informed about the policy-making process in our community.
    • Attend the meetings of our local governing bodies.  WBBJ and The Jackson Sun cannot report every single thing that is said in those meetings.  You must stay informed to understand the decisions that are being made.
    • After the opposition to the Vision 2020 vote, I was shocked to see that two of our school board members are running unopposed this time.  I urge those that are doing great things in our community to step up and run for local positions. We need fresh ideas and open minds.
    • Find out who your local elected officials are.  We get really caught up in presidential elections, but I can tell you that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are not thinking much about Jackson, TN.  Our local elected officials are though, so contact them to make sure they know what you expect from them.  Here is their contact information:

Finally, to our local elected officials, many of you are doing great things.  I appreciate your desire to better Jackson and your active role in that process.  I truly believe most of you decided to take on your role because you wanted your community to be the best it could be. But “with great power comes great responsibility” and you have a duty to not become complacent.  Honestly, it is apparent that many of you have done just that.  You must fight what is happening to the children in our community with passion and outrage!  You must keep them in the forefront of your mind each time you make a decision.  You can actually fight what is happening to education: the school-to-prison pipeline, the overabundance of testing, the zero-tolerance behavior policies.  You can lead the change, not in opposition to other governing bodies, but in partnership.  Jackson doesn’t have to sit idly by while decisions are made for us at the state or national level.  Furthermore, you have a duty to serve ALL members of our community.  You have a duty to want ALL parts of our community to progress.  That may mean stepping out of your comfort zone, opening your heart and your mind to new ideas, and taking a look at yourself and realizing that sometimes your decisions have negatively affected a large portion of our community.  Do all of that and then fix it, so it never happens again.  Please, do not take the mind-set that the school-to-prison pipeline happens to a certain group of children in a certain community.  Our whole community feels those effects for years to come…no matter where you live.  It isn’t “them” that needs to be fixed, it is us, as a community…Jackson. Remember, our children are watching us.  We must convey the message that we haven’t given up on them…not a single one of them.  

“Our children are watching us live, and what we ARE shouts louder than anything we can say.”

7/15/16 Update: On July 6, 2016, almost a month after my initial e-mail, I received a response from the school board member mentioned above.  Here is part of his response: “Regarding the picture posted on my page: I do recall seeing the pic, but I’m not sure that I’m the one who posted it on my page. Perhaps I did, but I honestly don’t recall. Sometimes other people put things on my page without my knowledge. I’m not extremely knowledgeable of FaceBook and I’m not sure how some of those things work. Regardless, I understand your concern. I will go to my FaceBook page now and try to remove the post.”

Anyway, he is the one that posted the picture and now he has removed the picture and that is all I have to say about that.  For now.

A friend posted this blog on her page and someone commented that they had seen the same picture on his page some months ago and pointed it out to another member of the school board.  He received no response about his concern.  “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”  Today is the first day to early vote…do it.