The United States currently incarcerates the largest portion of its population in the world. According to a 2013 international study, for every 100,000 U.S. citizens, 716 are in prison.[1] The problem of mass imprisonment is exacerbated by the disproportional representation of non-white Americans in the inmate population. Increasingly, this indication of racial inequality in the United States s been linked with the institutionalized racism that exists in the nation’s public school programs. The so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline is highly pervasive in counties that are predominantly black and Latino, leading researchers to question the policy-making of high-ranking within the Departments of Educations in every state. On Wednesday, November 4th, I went to a panel discussion titled  “From Behind Books to Behind Bars: America’s School-to-Prison Pipeline” hosted by NYU, focusing on the state of affairs in New York City’s public school programs.

First and foremost, it is important to note that along with South Carolina, New York is the second state in the country in which an individual is tried as an adult by the age of 16 years. Consequently, a 16-year-old high school student can potentially face a term in prison alongside hardened, violent criminals. This legal definition of adulthood infers that the last two years of high school are not necessary for the full development of an adolescent’s cognition to become a fully functioning member of a complex socio-economic system. To the panelists, this legislation was key in the high incarceration rates of young blacks and Latinos in New York City as their struggle to remain on the “right-side of the law” begins within the public schools themselves.

School resource officers – or SROs – are pretty common throughout the United States, especially in large urban centers. They tend to be social workers whose purpose is to be a supervisor of students on school grounds with the task of deescalating or nullifying conflicts between students and ensuring that schools remain a safe environment for education. In NYC, roughly 30% of SROs are regular NYPD patrol officers with little to no training in student disciplinary and intervention management. Though they are theoretically not supposed to mediate directly in classroom management but rather enforce laws and negate criminal activities, they often become internal police forces regarding students as any other person walking in the street. Given their status as NYPD officers, their bonus incentives are similar to those of their colleagues in the streets: number of arrests per week and meeting specific quotas. As a result, students in New York public schools with SROs are five times more likely to be arrested for activities, if done in the street, not considered unlawful acts. Minor infringements that may cause an unwarranted arrest include refusing to remove hairpins when going through metal detectors, mocking figures of authority, and dressing “provocatively”. Similar to the “broken windows” policing theory, which posits that the crackdown of small petty crimes will reduce serious crimes, New York public schools have implemented zero tolerance policies that crack down on negligible acts of student insubordination.

Under zero tolerance policies, small actions, such as talking back to a teacher, can lead to a student being suspended. Suspension from school for an extended period of time has negative effect on punished student; it reduces the student’s chance of graduation as she will return lost in a course material as her peers have moved on to a new subject; it increases the student’s sense of antagonism; and it leads the student to struggle to see the value of going to school, thereby increasing the drop-out rate. Without a high school education, an individual will have that much more difficulty in finding employment in a competitive labor-market and will be more inclined to take part in criminal activities to get by. At its core, harsh disciplinary policies criminalize adolescent behavior and fail to solve the cause of the student’s insubordination. Furthermore, these policies are statistically discriminatory towards non-white students.

According to the panelists of the event, black males are three times – females six times – more likely to be suspended than white students for the same behavior in New York City public schools. (Shockingly, black preschoolers are forty-eight times more likely to get suspended than white preschoolers for the same behavior) These staggering rates come down to the inherent racial bias that is propagated by mainstream media and manifested by the actions of teacher, regardless of their race. A black student’s behavior is more likely to be identified as one rooted in “malice” whereas a white student’s identical behavior is more likely to be identified as typical adolescent conceit or disrespect. The discrimination demonstrated in NYC public schools runs parallel to the discrimination found in the NYPD’s “stop-and-frisk” policy that disproportionately affect young black and Latino men. The racial bias and negative policies must end in the schools to begin dismantling the cycle of mass incarceration of blacks and Latinos.

Two decades of the current NYC public school policies have proven that they have been ineffective and have further aggravated social tensions and maintain the status quo of racial inequality. School resource officers should be trained education social workers, not police officers, who understand the complexities of adolescence and can build a constructive relationship with students, not one of authority and subordination. Funds should be diverted from the penal system to public education – it cost New York state $260,000 to incarcerate an individual for one year compared to the $12,000 spent on a student in a year. Students deserve benefits, love, and care, not handcuffs.

[1] Walmsley, Roy. “World Prison Population List.” World Prison Brief. October 13, 2013. Accessed November 6, 2015. http://www.prisonstudies.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/wppl_10.pdf.

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