Child Watch® Column: "From School Yard to Prison Yard"

Release Date: November 2, 2007

Marian Wright Edelman

This is one of a series of Child Watch® Columns on America's Cradle to Prison Pipeline® Crisis.

In a number of America's upper-income communities, parents like generations of family members before them preregister their children at birth for blue-chip nursery schools in hopes of placing them on the path to Ivy League and other top-tier universities. By contrast, millions of Black and Latino children from poor families with no or few stimulating prekindergarten opportunities never make it onto the college track. With multiple strikes against them — low birthweight, poor single parents, absent fathers, perhaps substance abuse — many begin life already on the prison track.

A good education in America is a major determinant of what kind of life a child will have when s/he grows up.  A bad education is often a sentence to social and economic death.  Education determines future income and social status as well as a child's range of future options and quality of life. Sadly, too many children in economically depressed minority communities are stuck in failing schools, greatly increasing their chances of ending up in a prison cell.

A child's experiences in the dawn of life establish the foundation that will prepare him or her to learn at school. Children in America's poorest communities who lack stable parenting, quality child care and who receive little stimulation in their early years will be behind when they start kindergarten. When they enter first grade, it's likely to be at a poorly funded, overcrowded, understaffed and low-achieving school. Inner-city schools have the highest numbers of teachers who are inexperienced or don't have degrees in the subjects they teach. The number of African American and Latino teachers in public schools has dropped dramatically over the past three decades. In my home state of South Carolina, there are less than 200 Black male elementary teachers. Consequently, too many schools are likely to be staffed by teachers and administrators who have low expectations for children from marginalized families whom they may label as "dumb" or "bad."

Currently, 88 percent of Black children and 85 percent of Latino children in fourth grade can't read at grade level. This is when minority children with poor preschool preparation begin to be sorted out.

The lack of health and mental health care among low-income children is also an important factor in a child's educational development. A child's misbehavior may be a reflection of an unaddressed learning disability or mental or emotional disorder. Regrettably, too few schools have the staff capable of recognizing the behavior of a disturbed or disabled child for what it is, and if they do, are unable to provide treatment. More often, these children are seen as "disruptive," and instead of offering them counseling or psychological therapy, too many educators dispense "zero tolerance" discipline — usually in the form of suspensions or expulsions. These approaches have serious negative consequences. Numerous studies have demonstrated that students who are suspended or expelled are more likely than their peers eventually to drop out of school altogether.

Once children drop out, or are pushed out of school, the prison pipeline is only one wrong move away.  With most churches and mosques closed during the week and too many community centers boarded up, children with few positive alternatives to the streets often head for the "corner," a different type of educational institution that teaches antisocial values like violence and criminal behavior, also glamorized on many of the TV programs they watch.

High school dropouts are almost three times as likely to be incarcerated as youths who have graduated from high school. But dropouts are not the only ones who encounter entryways into the prison pipeline. Many middle and high schools have full-time police officers who can independently arrest children on school grounds for any number of infractions like disorderly conduct, malicious mischief and fighting that just a few years ago would have been handled by families, the schools or community institutions. And now, children as young as five and six are being hauled down to police stations in handcuffs. I think we adults have lost our common sense and sense of plain decency.

There are things we can do. Congress and states must fully fund quality Head Start, Early Head Start, child care and preschool programs that target the neediest children between the ages of three and five to provide comprehensive education, health, nutrition and social services. Schools can adopt Yale University Professor James Comer's School Development Program designed to help children learn by first meeting their individual developmental needs. Communities can sponsor a CDF Freedom Schools® site (www.childrensdefense.org/freedomschools), a quality summer and after-school empowerment program that instills the love of learning in children and exposes them to caring college-age mentor-teachers. And we can all encourage the children in our lives and celebrate their academic achievements. Finally, educators who do not love and respect the children they are entrusted with preparing for the future should go do something else.