Oklahoma’s school-to-prison pipeline
Reimagining discipline in Oklahoma public schools
— Former Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Keith Ballard, as reported in Sept. 11, 2015 edition of The Oklahoman
Schools too often problematize students of color and exclude them. The disproportionate punishment of students of color in general, and young black males in particular, appears strikingly evident in both the Tulsa and Oklahoma City school districts, according to a 2015 report from The Oklahoman. This raises concerns about fairness and justice.
Nationally, schools suspend and expel three times more black primary and secondary school students than white students, as reported to the Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR). American Indian and Native Alaskan students comprise less than 1 percent of the student population, yet account for 2 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 3 percent of expulsions. Others students of color also experience disproportionate disciplinary sanctions. The U.S. Department of Education reports imbalances in school discipline begin as early as pre-K.
These early discrepancies in how schools mete out punishment seed down-the-line hardships for disciplined students and social problems for communities. In 2015, the Civil Rights Project said the staggering and foreseeable consequences borne by suspended and expelled students include: learning deficits, an enhanced risk of becoming high school dropouts and a predisposition toward criminality.
The Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy defines the school-to-prison pipeline as “a social phenomenon where legal policies, education policies and social constructs funnel struggling children from schools to jails and prisons.”
Contributing factors to the school-to-prison pipeline include poverty, implicit bias, school policies (e.g., zero-tolerance, overemphasis on testing), ineffective strategies for meeting the needs of students with disabilities and the failure to address trauma-related issues tied to the destruction of traditional Native American cultures.
The Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the USCCR hosted public hearings in 2015 on the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The USCCR is an independent, bipartisan agency charged with studying and advising the President and Congress on civil rights matters and issuing federal civil rights enforcement reports.
School administrators, teachers, legal professionals, nonprofit organizations, academics and advocates offered verbal and written testimony. The Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the USCCR sought to determine the extent to which the application of school disciplinary and juvenile justice policies in Oklahoma discriminatorily impact students on the basis of race, color and/or sex.
The Center for American Progress said that due in part to the pipeline, consignment to confinement now seems a mathematical probability for boys of color. “C” for convict has become the 21st century scarlet letter.
Dr. Paul Ketchum, professor of criminal justice at the University of Oklahoma, noted that the race of the offender more profoundly influences the severity of juvenile court referrals, expulsions and school-based arrests than does the offense itself. There is nothing to suggest that nonwhite students have worse behavioral problems than white students, though nonwhite students have disproportionate contact with “the system.” This leaves boys of color academically delayed, disinterested and virtually abandoned by educators. They drop out, not just from school, but from productive life — a vicious cycle begun.
For African Americans, the school-to-prison pipeline represents just one facet of “the New Jim Crow”: a latticework of laws, policies and practices that ensnare thousands of black men in the system’s vortex. That entanglement leads inexorably to incarceration and, with it, a pariah-like, lifelong status. This near-death spiral captures children, families and communities in a web of poverty and privation that saps our nation’s productivity and prosperity. Life in lockup adversely affects individual and family prospects across generations.
The Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the USCCR made several recommendations:
- A national study on the impact of school funding on race/color-based gaps in educational outcomes
- Uniform licensing requirements to ensure that all law enforcement officers working in schools are properly trained and equipped to respond in an age-appropriate manner
- State-imposed mandatory disciplinary policy reforms for schools with significant disparities in disciplinary actions on the basis of race, color or disability (e.g., cultural competence/implicit bias training)
- School district-initiated measures to ensure that students receive a quality educational experience, even if in the context of an alternative schooling arrangement.
Disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline is both imperative and urgent. We must act with dispatch and decisiveness to reimagine discipline in Oklahoma public schools.
The Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the USCCR seeks to foster constructive dialogue leading to the creation and implementation of strategies that slow, and ultimately eliminate, the school-to-prison pipeline. The operative assumption is that knowledge-sharing must precede behavior modification.
The Oklahoma Advisory Committee to the USCCR conveyed its recommendations to its headquarters in Washington, D.C., together with a request to disseminate the suggestions to the following federal agencies with relevant jurisdiction: The Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights; the Department of Education, Office of Indian Education; and the Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In addition, the proposals will be shared with Oklahoma’s Congressional delegation and public schools.
Local and state leaders should continue to monitor school discipline data and consider appropriate site and/or system-based interventions designed to reduce significant disparities in the application of discipline, especially suspensions and expulsions. Concerned individuals should request demographic discipline data from school boards and school administrators from which they may determine the prevalence and significance of a school-to-prison pipeline. Apathy and a lack of transparency serve no one’s interest.
Schools have begun to grapple with this troublesome issue. In July 2016, Tulsa Public Schools adopted new student discipline guidelines that introduced alternatives to suspension for less serious offenses. The TPS Board of Education adopted the TPS Behavior Response Plan for 2016-2017. This plan reflects a new disciplinary approach emphasizing intervention over punishment in appropriate cases. While much remains to be done, such progress should spark hope and provide the foundation for a continued commitment to identify sustainable solutions.
Visit usccr.gov for more information on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Hannibal B. Johnson, a graduate of Harvard Law School, is an attorney, author, consultant and college professor. He serves on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and is the author of books on African-American history and culture.