What works for kids: Solving the School to Prison Pipeline Puzzle
The “School-to-Prison Pipeline” pushes kids out of school and into the criminal justice system, into our controversial youth jails. It results from our collective failure to grow kids that can pass third grade reading achievement tests and an ineffective punitive discipline system. Without a common understanding of the racialized problem and community-wide agreement on corrective strategies, our efforts will fall short. We need a shared community-wide and universal goal to serve the social, emotional, and academic whole child with an emphasis on increased literacy and reformed school discipline practices.
1. Vaccinate against illiteracy.
Those who love reading understand the importance of books for kids. The University of Nevada and the University of Tennessee recently published studies showing that kids who have books at home – particularly books they chose – do better in school and stay in school longer. In King County, Washington, at-risk schools that sent kids home with 12 books for the summer all made 5-10% gains in meeting state reading standards compared with the average loss of one point for all Seattle Public Schools children, and two points for low income children in Seattle. Like small pox and polio, there is a vaccine for illiteracy: 12 books a summer.
2. Implement Community-Wide Positive Behavior Intervention and Support
In Oakland, Tacoma, Seattle, and across the nation, a better behavior management system called “Positive Behavior Intervention and Support” is taking root. It sets positive expectations and behaviors, and it creates positive relationships between adults and students, instead of a punitive system of rules and punishments. Its shared expectations provide consistent teaching and recognition of positive behaviors and uses common procedures to prevent problem behavior. In Oakland and Tacoma, teacher job satisfaction is up and school discipline issues are down, and the whole community embraces the new model in partnership to be kind, be safe, and be responsible.
3. Implement Restorative Justice Practices Community-Wide.
“Restorative Justice” practices focus on the needs of people, victims, offenders and community – with welcome circles, peace circles, conflict resolution circles and support circles. Restorative Justice supports relationships, the response to harm, and individual support. There is one-at-a-time talking that emphasizes patience and listening to each person, and there is conventional back-and-forth conversation. Relational responses to negative behavior in our racialized schools, justice system, and communities reduce negative behavior, and they foster an environment conducive to learning in school. It builds relationships and community. It is, in short, a way of living to be mirrored in the classroom, the board room, the home, and other community forums.
4. Always Use Trauma-Informed Practices.
Childhood trauma is a life-threatening experience. It can be the death of a friend or family member, homelessness, or other significant tragedy that threatens a young person’s survival. “Adverse Childhood Experiences” is another measure for children dealing with violence, poverty, drug addiction, neglect, malnutrition or racial oppression. These children need trauma-informed care, including an understanding of the dynamics of our racialized culture, both historically over generations and as manifested in institutional racialization today. In some schools, over half the kids are dealing with multiple traumas and/or Adverse Childhood Experiences. They need help to be safe and heal. Whether the child is ours, in our kid’s class or in the school across town, we all benefit when children experiencing trauma and “Adverse Childhood Experiences” are cared for appropriately, stay engaged in school, and avoid the criminal justice system.
5. Always Use Culturally Responsive Services
All service providers must embody culturally responsive and culturally proficient practices. In Seattle, juvenile domestic violence (often familial violence as opposed to intimate partner violence) is on the rise. Yet we have very few services for children and families struggling with domestic violence. One King County program, Step-Up, is available after a juvenile is arrested or convicted. But we need to serve these families earlier and more frequently - before children enter the criminal justice system - in our communities, schools, and places of worship. When we address domestic violence in our youth in a culturally responsive manner by diverting youth and families into services designed by them for them we prevent future violence and crime of all types.
In Oakland, it took community leaders a year to develop common goals. In Tacoma, they are committed to a 10-year implementation plan to complete their reforms. Let’s not waste another day. Our cities’ police chiefs, mayors, school officials, and communities need to get on the same community-centered page today.