But ending the institutional racism that allowed a white man who killed an unarmed black teenager to walk free requires more than just reforming the processes that started after Michael Brown died. It requires us to begin where Brown began – at school, where children of color are labeled (and sometimes treated) as little more than criminals before they’ve lost their baby teeth.
When we asked readers for your bright ideas about reform, several suggested that we need to start with our schools and ending the school-to-prison pipeline for good. Criminalizing children instills a distrust for law enforcement early, and more cops in schools has meant more misdemeanor charges in lieu of visits to the principal’s office. Those trends also dramatically overcriminalize students of color – 70% of American students arrested for offences in school are black or Hispanic.
We spoke with Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights group leading the fight against a system that “relentlessly criminalizes young people of color”, about how to start working to end the school-to-prison pipeline ... today.
1. End ‘broken window’ policing in our schools.
The flawed strategy of cracking down on minor infractions – like suspending a child for chewing a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun – to discourage big-ticket crimes down the line is rampant in schools, Browne Dianis said.
And criminalizing kids for doing things that were previously – and correctly – dealt with as normal-kid behavior breaks students’ fledgling trust for law enforcement and their teachers. Students pegged as trouble makers early receive out-of-school suspensions or end up in the juvenile justice system for very minor misconduct. Once they have records with the police, children can be given probation tied to very stringent rules like zero lateness or getting high grades, and violating the conditions of probation means returning to court or the juvenile justice system, Browne Dianis said.
“It becomes a very unforgiving system for young people,” she said.
Out-of-school suspensions and arrests are also strongly predictors of escalating trouble later on: just one suspension in ninth grade doubles a student’s chance of dropping out of before graduation, and black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.
2. Take steps to limit law enforcement’s role in schools.
Police have no place intervening in school disciplinary matters – and districts need to sign agreements with the police that enumerate what their specific role will be, what kind of training officers need to work with kids and what data will be collected, Browne Dianis added.
In districts with such policies and accountability measures in place, they work for schools and many students. After the Denver public school system rolled back its police presence in schools in 2008, expulsions have gone down by nearly 50% and juvenile court filings are down 43%.
3. Tie school funding to a ‘clean bill of health’ on bias training and accountability.
At the state and federal levels, departments of education can initiate top-down change by requiring that all teachers, administrators and staff receive training on how their implicit biases affect their work with students to be eligible for grant funding, says Browne Dianis.
State and local social justice groups should call the federal department of education, she added, to investigate whether districts have an ongoing history of racial disparities in discipline, and use the results as an accountability measure when schools are vying for federal funding.
4. Hold your own schools accountable.
Still, it’s up for the community to take schools to task, Browne Dianis said. She suggests that parents and other community members file complaints if they see racial disparities in arrests and disciplinary actions.
Schools are beginning to see that overcriminalizing “is a loser” for their academic outcomes, Browne Dianis said – but organized groups of community members are also making progress by filing complaints with the US department of education’s office for civil rights.
If we’re going to dismantle racism at its root, we should start by holding the people with the power – and the badges – in our kids’ lives accountable, so there can be clear consequences when police step out of line. Which, as America has learned the hardest way, can be all too often.