We Punish.

school-to-prison-illustration
“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”-Victor Hugo
I was going to let this go because I had already written about it previously with no success. I sent that blog, Our Children Are Watching Us, to all the city council members and the city mayor (one responded), all the county commissioners and the county mayor (two responded), and all the school board members and the superintendent (two responded).  All plans are to move forward with the $30 million+ jail expansion.  The one change from my last blog post is that now the school board is talking about building a new school in the northern part of the county.  They just closed 5 schools, remember?  But this isn’t actually a new conversation.  They spoke of this before the vote to close those 5 schools.  In a conversation between board members and commissioners, they spoke of the hope that the residents that live in the north of the county that send their children to private school would instead send their children to the public K-8 school in their own neighborhood.  So basically a new school for rich, white folks in the north and a new jail for anyone else that doesn’t fit that category…you know, black kids.  Don’t stop reading ’cause I said that…I have the proof.  Keep reading and you will see why I couldn’t let it go…
Last week I attended the School Board Retreat where they had a presentation from a juvenile court representative.  She spoke about some intervention programs that students could go into instead of being placed into the system.  This would make their transition back into school easier.  During this conversation, several very petty incidents were mentioned where students had been sent to juvenile court.  This led to a discussion of the School Resource Officers.  Apparently, there is not a board policy concerning the role of the SROs, they were unclear about what training the SROs were given in dealing with students, and there was some concern about SROs being used incorrectly.  This is not the first time I have heard this, by the way.  The board agreed to discuss this further at the next school board work session in November.  So for that I am hopeful.  However, this discussion concerned me, so I started doing some research.
The first thing I discovered is that there is still corporal punishment in this district.  Policy says that “A parent or guardian must indicate annually in writing that corporal punishment/paddling may not be administered.”  I am still uncertain as to whether the form is given to parents at registration to sign or whether it is up to parents to give the school a letter opting out of corporal punishment.  This is not stated in the board policy and the parents I have talked to seem to have varying experiences.  Some signed it one year but not the next.  Some were given a form at one school but not another school.  So if there is a district procedure for this, it isn’t consistent across the district.  In 2013-2014, there was a total enrollment of 13,083 (59.2% Black, 31.5% White, and 6.4% Hispanic) and there were 98 cases of corporal punishment (56.1% Black, 37.8% White, and 4.1% Hispanic) in JMCSS. In 2011-2012, there was a total enrollment of 13,297 (60.4% Black, 32.4% White, and 5.2% Hispanic) and there were 265 cases of corporal punishment (78.5% Black and 20% White).  Corporal punishment has been banned in 31 states and the District of Columbia. States that retain corporal punishment are mostly Southern states.  Click here to see the map.  Groups including the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American Medical Association strongly oppose the practice.
I also found that in the school year 2013-2014 in our school district, 66 students had referrals to law enforcement.  All of them were African-American.  However, African-Americans only made up 59.2% of the total enrollment that school year.  All of this information came from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. You can see it for yourself here.  It also shows school year 2011-2012 where there were 83 referrals to law enforcement with 72.3% of those being African-Americans and only 60.4% of our district enrollment being African-American.  More recent years have not yet been posted.
Although my communication with elected officials rarely yields results, I sent another email to each board member and the superintendent and included the information above. As always, I included some suggestions.  Despite my frequent criticism of some board members, I do want them to get it right.  I am always willing to help to make sure that happens.  The following is part of what I wrote in my email:
Studies show that there is a link between school discipline practices and low academic achievement. Therefore, if we want to see a change in this district, we might need to start with how we administer discipline in our schools.  You might find these helpful:
 
  • Rosemarie Allen has a TedTalk where she says “School suspensions are an adult behavior” and “When children don’t know how to read, we teach. When they don’t know how to write, we teach.  When they don’t know how to ride a bike, we teach.  But when children don’t know how to behave, do we teach or do we punish?  We punish.”  She focuses on preschool discipline but makes some very important points about racial bias in this article.
  • Restorative justice, if implemented correctly, could be an effective alternative to the excessive suspensions that are occurring.  If you haven’t heard of restorative justice in schools, here is an article that tells more.
I am afraid if something is not done soon, these discipline numbers are going to worsen, damaging our students, particularly our African-American students, even more.  And those numbers are actual children that our community will have plenty of room to house in that new jail expansion we are getting ready to build.  Finally, if this district is going to have a corporal punishment policy and send students to law enforcement, I think it imperative that you watch the documentary, 13th, on Netflix. It tells the story of how mass incarceration has become modern-day slavery.
 
Several times in the past year I have brought up implicit bias and racial equity to the board with solutions to help overcome those biases.  Each time I have been largely ignored.  Yet, FB posts from board members, comments from board members and employees, and discipline data show that the problem persists.  I am obviously a supporter of public schools.  If I ever had children, I would, without a doubt, want them to attend public schools.  However, if I was raising an African-American child, there is no way I would take a chance on sending him or her to a school in this district.  How many other parents have made that choice for the same reason?  How many would if they could?
Today a friend sent me this article from Chalkbeat.  It lists some of the very suggestions I mentioned in my email to the board members.  It also states that Madison County is the third highest ranked district in the state of Tennessee for students suspended overall.  Our county is also the third highest ranked district in the state of Tennessee for black students suspended.  The districts that ranked higher than Madison County in both categories were Shelby County and the state-run Achievement School District, the majority of whose schools are also in Memphis.  With a ranking like that, outsiders might assume that we were one of the largest districts in the state.  Nope, Madison County isn’t even in the top ten.
I have been so disgusted by these numbers over the past week that I can barely stop thinking about them for a single minute.  I drive to work and think about what those numbers actually represent.  The students that are getting on the bus that will be sent home that day on a suspension, once again.  Or worse…students that will be sent to law enforcement to start down their road to our county’s shiny new prison.  I don’t care if their pants are sagging or they cuss at the lunch tables or they fight in the cafeteria. (These are student behavior complaints mentioned during the School Board Retreat that board members said they had witnessed while visiting schools.)  I don’t particularly like any of that behavior either but every generation has had their questionable fashion choices, cussing, and fights.  None of it is cause for excessive, extreme discipline.  And let’s be honest, we know who will be receiving that excessive, extreme discipline…the data shows it.
“When children attend schools that place a greater value on discipline and security than on knowledge and intellectual development, they are attending prep schools for prison.”  -Angela Davis
There is a group that has a petition to stop the jail expansion in our county. Please, sign that here.
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