Most American schools are closed today in observance of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. But despite King's tireless efforts to eradicate Jim Crow, Ohio State University law professor and longtime civil rights activist Michelle Alexander says that systematic racial discrimination against black students is still far too common in our nation's schools. Instead of a cradle-to-college path, in her new book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander calls out the prevalence of the "school-to-prison pipeline".
In an interview with Rethinking Schools, Alexander says that school discipline policies were directly copied from the get-tough rhetoric of the war on drugs. One of the earliest examples of "zero tolerance language in school discipline manuals was a cut-and-paste job from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration manual." Alexander says schools quickly "began viewing children as criminals or suspects, rather than as young people with an enormous amount of potential struggling in their own ways and their own difficult context to make it and hopefully thrive."
Indeed, the Children's Defense Fund research has revealed that black children are criminalized in American schools. They're almost three times as likely to be suspended from school and are more than four times as likely to be expelled. Even though research proves that building strong relationships with students, not law enforcement, is what puts students on the right track, school districts continue to invest their dwindling resources in having a police presence on campus. Instead of giving students guidance, schools now treat them "as potential violators."
Alexander says that although teachers are often reluctant to address the situation, they should "encourage young people to tell their own stories and to speak openly about their own experiences with the criminal justice system and the experiences of their family." Given that students are already organizing protests over school funding and the attacks on teachers, she also believes that youth-led campaigns against pushing students into the prison pipeline are essential.
Above all, it's essential for educators to speak up about what's happening. "There is a tremendous amount of confusion and denial that exists about mass incarceration today," says Alexander, but "exposing youth in classrooms to the truth about this system" is the first step to changing it.