Advocates & ACLU: Richmond and national public school systems face ‘prison pipeline’

by | Feb 20, 2015 | POLITICS

As we near the end of Black History Month, VCU held an event featuring the leader of the ACLU’s program devoted to race issues.

As we near the end of Black History Month, VCU held an event featuring the leader of the ACLU’s program devoted to race issues. He was unabashed in his description of racial inequalities in the public school system in America, and here in Richmond, today.

​“School discipline itself is a highly racialized component of of our system. 40% of students who our expelled from schools are Black, 70% of students involved in in-school arrests are Black or Latino, Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended, and half as likely to graduate,” said Dennis Parker (pictured below), Director of the ACLU Racial Justice Program, when discussing the domino effect of the school to prison pipeline – a concept which suggests part of the current US legal system are set up to increase the likelihood of incarceration among youth of color.

Parker spoke of the consequences of a failure to graduate, and how 68% of men in state and federal prisons do not have a high school diploma.

“If you look at it the other way and look at what happens to students who drop out of school, said Parker to the crowd of ___ people gathered at the VCU’s W.E. Singleton Center. “More than one in three black men who don’t graduate from high school will go to jail.”

Parker’s talk on racial inequalities in today’s American schools and courtrooms showed how, while we’ve come a long way since Selma, there are still deep injustices happening to people of color every day.

He continually pointed out the ways in which the ripples from America’s troubled history of segregation and discrimination continue to resonate today.

The event opened with an illustration of the contradictions facing racial minorities today; with 2015 marking the 51th anniversary of the passing of the Civil Rights Act, but also being a year in which American courts can still justify the murders of unarmed men like Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and many others.

Parker described Virginia as “a state that can lay claim to both advancing the goals of Brown vs. Board of Education, and to blocking them after an extraordinary amount of resistance which included the abolition of all public schools in some counties in this state.”

This history of in-school segregation has continued in our state, according to Parker, with recent years showing a steady increase in segregation of Virginia students; city schools continue to have a predominantly black student body while suburban schools are comprised mainly of white students.

This split leads to city students having less access to quality educational programs during K-12, and in turn, the students are much less prepared for higher education and beyond.

Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, assistant professor at VCU’s School of Education, introduced Dennis Parker and gave a presentation on school segregation as it specifically affects schools in the Richmond area.

As she explained it, there has been a trend since 1992 of public schools in the suburbs of Henrico and Chesterfield having an overwhelming white majority of students, while Richmond City Public Schools have a mainly black student body.

Siegel-Hawley linked this racial segregation to concentrations of poverty. She showed how the population of students who were receiving free or reduced lunches is primarily around schools in Richmond City, rather than in the suburbs.

Siegel-Hawley went on to explain the connection between this racial segregation and access to Gifted and Talented programs. To her, the serious racial disparities in GT programs in Henrico County, where in 2011, 68% of the Gifted and Talented students were white, even though white students made up only 44% of the overall student population.

This trend continued in Chesterfield County, where 80% of the GT kids were white, while they only made up 55% of the student body. Finally, in Richmond City, white students made up just 15% of the population, but they made up 40% of the population of students in the Gifted and Talented program.

The disparity in opportunities for a more rigorous education for students of color in the Richmond area starts kids off on the wrong foot, she said, and this is only compounded by disproportionate amounts of discipline being used on students of color versus white students.

As one of the lead attorneys in an ongoing Connecticut court case fighting against de facto segregation across urban and suburban school boundary lines, Parker said he knows these problems don’t just affect Virginia.

Schools are racially split across the country, with suburban schools giving their predominantly white student body continual chances to take AP or honors-level classes, while schools in the inner-city are more likely to adopt strict, “zero-tolerance” policies with their students as early as preschool and kindergarten.

Parker mentioned seeing a six year old girl in Georgia a few years ago, who was having a temper tantrum, and in response, the school’s police officer came in, put her in handcuffs, and took her out.

“It’s a shocking sight,” said Parker, “but its something that hear more and more of, instances of younger and younger people being subjected to more and more discipline.”

According to him, this is where we begin to talk about the school to prison pipeline, a system that pushes America’s youth of color away from college and towards jail time.

This in-school punishment is undeniably a racial issue, as Parker explained, with statistics showing white students tending to be disciplined “more for the kinds of things that are undeniable violations of policy: for having weapons, for having drugs.”

Black students, on the other hand, tend to be disciplined more for subjective, behavioral things, “the things that are seen as a challenge to teachers: insubordination, disrespect, things like that.”

“When it comes to the school to prison pipeline, one of the key indicators is suspensions,” said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, when discussing the threat that out of school suspensions pose to students’ futures in Richmond. “We know that ninth graders who are suspended just once are twice as likely to drop out. We also know that kids who experience suspensions in middle and elementary school are much more likely to be incarcerated by ninth grade.”

The statistics support Siegel-Hawley, with her charts showing over half of the out of school suspensions going to black students in Henrico and Chesterfield, while they make up only 30% of the counties’ overall student body.

When discussing solutions to all these problems in our schools, Parker acknowledged that there are no easy fixes, but that “the lesson that we’ve learned over the past few decades is that it’s necessary that we continue to pay attention. If you look at the arc of school desegregation, it shows us this time of high integration and us going back into eras of deep segregation. It shows that there can be a quick retrenchment unless we address the issue in a conscious and mindful way.”

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

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