Out from the hallways, into the classrooms

New Holly community members urged Seattle City and King County Councilmembers, and one Seattle School Board member, to reduce how often schools use suspensions and expulsions as disciplinary measures. Frustration boiled from every corner of the overflowing public forum, The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Education not Criminalization of our Youth. The community knows that youth of color are being disproportionately punished in school in ways that undermine their ability to succeed in the future. The school-to-prison pipeline, a reality in which zero-tolerance school disciplinary measures perpetuate future youth incarceration – particularly, youth of color – justifies the frustration.

School2PrisonBanner

Fremont Fair parade banner illustrating the school-to-prison pipeline

Solid Ground President & CEO Gordon McHenry, Jr., the former Executive Director of Rainier Scholars, says, “The community has known for a long time there was a problem. The municipal and county leaders know there’s a problem. The school district knows there’s a problem, and the data that comes from both the school district and government validates that there is a problem.” With recognition coming from all levels that Seattle schools’ disciplinary structures are dangerously flawed, last week’s forum felt several decades overdue.

Schools, and for that matter the criminal justice system, often rely on punitive justice as opposed to restorative justice, says McHenry, Jr. The referral-suspension-expulsion disciplinary hierarchy takes students out of the classroom and compounds underlying behavioral issues with falling behind in class. Hallways, detention rooms, and youth prisons are all educationally broken environments that sentence students to insurmountable education gaps long after the actual punishment ends.

The community feels suspensions and expulsions should be measures of last resort, necessitated only when physical or emotional safety is at risk. Not looking the teacher in the eye, wearing jeans too low, or other behavioral missteps are better handled as teaching opportunities than justifications for dismissal.

Zero-tolerance policies for poor behavior inherently target certain groups because behavior is dictated by a student’s circumstances. A student who acts out in class because he sleeps in a car and can’t afford breakfast has as much right to equitable education as a student coming from more stable living conditions. McHenry, Jr. argues the goal for education is to “enable educators to educate all youth – not just the model youth that come from a stable home, [are] well fed, and have one or both parents employed.”

More inclusive schools can directly lessen the school-to-prison pipeline. Correlations between how far students get in school and incarceration rates confirms that by developing students’ knowledge, skills and cultural awareness, schools help keep youth out of prison. Although, the schools’ primary responsibility is to teach core subjects, the school has an additional responsibility for fostering a positive environment due to the dominant role they play in children’s lives.

The disconnect between what we assign our schools to do and their unacceptable failure to educate some students also stems from lack of resources. School funding to meet the mandated basic education requirements is not sufficient for supporting a culturally and economically diverse student body, says McHenry, Jr.

Ideally, teachers could create in-the-moment lessons for behavior misconduct that keeps disruptive students in the classroom. This might be as simple as a student learning to recognize their inappropriate behavior, or maybe more comprehensive action including apologies or community service. Policymakers and communities have the onus of getting teachers the support they need so they can productively address disruptive students while still continuing to teach to the entire class.

As one teacher mentioned in the forum, we need to pull students out from the hallways and into the classrooms if we want them to believe that’s where they belong. Forcing students out of learning is educationally and psychologically destructive. Hallways turn into detentions which turn into prisons. Equitable access to quality education is a critical first step to ending poverty. We owe them that.

‘Locking young people up doesn’t work’

This opinion piece by James Williams was originally published as SUNDAY DISCOURSE: WHERE WE GO FROM HERE (3 BASIC TRUTHS). (Reposted with permission of the South Seattle Emerald.)

THERE IS A BETTER WAY.

AfAm male behind fenceLocking young people up doesn’t work. It doesn’t keep communities safe. In the 90s, incarceration rates skyrocketed nationwide but had no discernible effects as far as reducing crime rates. Locking young people up doesn’t set them up for success later in life or help them work through whatever problems they are dealing with. The skills it takes to survive and be respected behind bars are much different than the ones young people need to thrive on the outside.

In too many instances, by locking young people up we are preparing them for a life path of poverty and reoccurring incarceration.

When a person does come home and turn their life around, it is not the bars and bricks that had the positive impact on them. Usually it means they met someone in there who talked to them and helped them to understand life better. Or it means they used the time to sit down, sort their thoughts out, and make a plan.

We should find better ways to connect resources like positive mentors and life skills like meditation and conflict resolution to the youth who most need them.

Community led Prevention and Alternative to Detention programs do work. When we get it right, virtually all resources will be poured into Community led Prevention programs. Every child, like every person, has potential to do great good or great bad. When we get it right, resources will go to unlocking that great potential before serious mistakes are made.

Examples of community led prevention are the Africatown Center for Education & Innovation and First Place Scholars Charter School. Africatown offers a wide array of after-school and summer programing for youth in the Rainier Valley. History, culture, and self-pride are part of every curriculum. First Place welcomes students from some of the county’s most turbulent situations with an understanding that we all have the potential to be geniuses and a commitment to provide whatever wrap-around services, mentors, or family counseling are needed. These models are working to help our youth grow as part of a healthy and thriving community.

Models such as this need to be supported and scaled up while remaining under the leadership of communities most affected by problems they seek to solve.

In the present moment, Community led Alternative to Detention programs are essential. Models such as 4Culture and the 180 Program currently exist within the King County Juvenile Justice system. 4Culture is an art-based diversionary program which links young people with like-minded artists who mentor them and coach them over a four-month period. Diversion 180 is a program that allows juveniles with minor offenses to have charges dropped in exchange for attending a four-hour seminar on growing up and recovering from mistakes, facilitated by adults with similar backgrounds.

COUNTY IS BUILDING A BRIDGE TO NOWHERE.

In essence, on February 9th the Council communicated to the world, “Youth Jails today, Youth Jails tomorrow, and Youth Jails forever.” For more than one reason, this situation begs comparison with when George Wallace was Governor of Alabama and uttered the line, “I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”  The vote was the realization of community liaison Claudia Balducci’s repeated promise that, “We are going to build the jail. No matter what people say and do, we are going to build the jail.”

It is widely recognized that the the war on drugs was lost. Locking ever-increasing numbers of people up did not reduce the availability of narcotics on the street. The country is turning a corner now, we are starting to move down another path. Now, marijuana has been legalized in several states. Organizations such as ACLU-WA are receiving $10 million grants to find ways of bringing down mass incarceration numbers. The total number of juveniles incarcerated in King County is around half of what it was 10 years ago.

Mass incarceration is a failed solution of the past, not the future. Public officials who support this project will be remembered by future generations as leaders who built a bridge to nowhere. Completing the proposed building is a favor to developers and prison building companies more than any effort to improve public safety or help families and young people.

THE FUTURE IS NOW.

In his 1964 speech titled “Message to the Grassroots,” Malcolm X talked about a change that was taking place in the mood of the black community. Some say the speech is about differences in leadership style. I say it is more of a speech about generations, inevitable change, and the baton of leadership.

Talking to the leaders of the 40s and 50s who felt change was being demanding in unreasonable chunks during the 1960s, Malcolm told them that the young people of that day were tired of going along to get along and demanded tangible change. He was proved right by increased levels of militancy and impossible-to-ignore demands for change that came from black leaders and community organizations in the late 60s and early 70s. We understand where Malcolm was coming from because we are in a similar situation today.

Speaking to ones who have carried the torch of leadership for Seattle’s most oppressed populations during recent decades, I want them to know the leaders of the 2020s and 2030s have awakened. These young leaders believe true justice and a better future is possible for all of us.

The next generation is not trading in the welfare of the community for awards or position. It is understood how the politics of respectability and going along to get along have not worked for most people. You are witnessing the awakening of tomorrow’s leaders and the coming of age for a new generation. There is no going back. Nothing will ever be the same.

THREE THINGS YOU CAN DO (to help Ending the Prison Industrial Complex):

  • Call ACLU-WA at 206.624.2184 and tell them 10% of their grant to fight Mass Incarceration from Floyd Jones should be used to fund community led-prevention & alternatives to detention models.

‘It’s a broken system that’s not working’: Proposed new youth jail will increase incarceration of youth of color

In 2012, King County, WA voters passed a levy initiative to fund the construction of a new Children and Family Justice Center. Given the fact that 100% of taxpayer money will be used for the construction of the facility – not for maintaining or creating services – it’s hard to think of this facility as anything other than a reinforcement of the school-to-prison pipeline, a widespread pattern in the US of pushing students, especially those already at a disadvantage, out of school and into our criminal justice system.

In King County, African-American and white youth commit crime at the same rates, yet about 40% of detained youth are African American, and they are twice as likely to be arrested and referred to court as white youth. Incarcerating youth without providing diversion or reintegration programs increases the chances of recidivism, thus continuing the revolving door of our criminal justice system – statewide and nationally.

“It’s by design to start that process off early,” says Ardell Shaw, intern for Solid Ground’s Statewide Poverty Action Network. He describes how this affects kids later in life: “A person has a felony on their record. Now they may repeat this cycle, and when they get out, they have huge amounts of fines to pay. The system creates enough stress where they perpetuate recidivism and keep that cycle going.”

New Youth Jail, King County, institutional racism, african american incarceration, king county juvenile infographic

Infographic created by Solid Ground

Now that we’ve gone over some statistics, imagine how these numbers will change after the jail is built. The county is going to have to justify spending a quarter of a billion dollars on this project somehow. Their justification will come in the form of incarcerating more youth, especially targeting youth of color.

“The purpose for building it isn’t about the renovations, it’s to put more bodies in it. Particularly African-American bodies,” says Ardell. “When it first came out they tried to glamorize it as a ‘family center’ instead of calling it what it actually was.” A youth jail.

What can you do about it?

1)     “Make calls. Support us when we have meetings.” Ardell is referring to the No New Youth Jail campaign, which is strongly backed by Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, The People’s Institute Northwest, and the Black Prisoners’ Caucus among other organizations, including Solid Ground.

2)     Call King County and City of Seattle council members Bruce Harrell, Mike O’Brien, Kathy Lambert and Dow Constantine to say you support the demands to defer this money elsewhere.

3)     Also, Ardell encourages us to talk about it. “Make people aware that it is a waste of taxpayers’ money. That money could be spent other ways. The juvenile system is broken and they DON’T fix problems in the current system.”

“You have to deal with what the issue is, why they got into trouble in the first place,” explains Ardell. “They’re not just committing crimes to commit crimes. There are other factors … So if we can get to the base root of what that is, then we stand a better chance. Then we let the kids know there is a possibility. They need to find a way to correct their system and really offer these kids help. Not just probation, but help.”

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