Building blocks: Classroom to cell

In September 2020, I published the first iteration of my column, Sobremesa. I advocated for an approach that tackled the root causes of the injustices in the U.S. criminal justice system. Today, I am calling for the same action with a more targeted approach: we must build the initial blocks for substantive change in the U.S. education system.

The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the process of students from minority, economically disadvantaged neighborhoods moving from the education system straight to the prison system. Direct routes, such as in-school arrests, and more indirect mechanisms, such as suspensions, expulsions and dropouts, all facilitate this system. This pipeline has devastating implications. It increases the number of people of color behind bars and contributes to the problem of mass incarceration in the United States that stems from a systematic emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation.

Among the contributing factors to the school-to-prison pipeline are school resource officers. School resource officers are police officers who work in schools and were originally intended to keep schools safe. Many of these officers are untrained in important areas, including, but not limited to, de-escalation and racial equity. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, which aims to end police brutality against people of color, we must ensure that students feel safe in school regardless of the color of their skin. It is simply impossible to grant students the safety that they deserve with untrained school resource officers lingering in hallways.

Other policies that perpetuate the pipeline include the zero tolerance policy and the broken windows policy. States began to institute their own zero tolerance policies in the 1990s. Simultaneously, broken windows policies aimed to penalize petty crimes. These policies exacerbate racial disparities in suspension rates and form a disheartening fluid mosaic of racism and classism that introduces volatility into many schoolchildren’s lives.

It is in the hands of the American people to say enough is enough. We must no longer stand for these injustices. The entirety of our nation’s youth deserve much more.

We must begin by creating new disciplinary policies within our schools. Rather than excessive suspensions and expulsions, we must create educational, empathetic avenues that give students the room to grow as individuals. We must also institute diversity and inclusion training among all teachers, faculty, staff and students. While this would look different in each school, one goal would remain constant: the pursuit of equity for all.

The ball is in each one of our courts. Here at Tufts, there are many different youth mentorship opportunities. Through organizations like Strong Women, Strong Girls and DREAM, undergraduate students are able to mentor youth in the local Medford/Somerville community, serving as role models, sources of advice and listeners for impressionable students.To see action at the national level, we can all write letters to policy makers demanding change.

We must act now and build the foundation our nation has always deserved before one more student slips through the pipeline.