Segregation 2.0: America's school-to-prison pipeline

In an iconic image painted after the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, Norman Rockwell depicted a solitary black girl, dressed in a crisp white dress, walking to class on what is obviously her first day at a newly desegregated school. What sears the image in our memory are her surroundings: four federal marshals, assigned to protect her as she makes her way through a hostile crowd.

Were the painting done today, it might show law enforcement acting in a very different capacity. Instead of leading a black child safely into school, the image might very well be of police officers escorting a child out.

"Police officers have become a regular and growing presence in schools across America, particularly in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color."'

Sixty years after the Brown decision, de facto segregation persists because of a complex web of factors rooted in our nation's long history of discrimination. But segregation is only one of the issues faced by students of color. Increasingly, minority children are drawn into the so-called school-to-prison pipeline -- the phenomenon in which draconian disciplinary policies force students out of the educational system and into the criminal justice system. 

This extreme approach -- which includes the overly strict enforcement of zero-tolerance policies, the use of suspension and expulsion at younger and younger ages, and increasingly turning students over to law enforcement -- has resulted in a skyrocketing number of students receiving harsh punishments. Much of the increase is the result of heightened concerns over school violence, even though research shows there is no safer place for kids than in school. Another factor is the persistent misperception that students of color are inherently more dangerous.

Whatever the cause, the effects of the pipeline are both damaging and unfair. These policies have contributed to the criminalization of the classroom, whereby small infractions that would in the past have led to a trip to the principal’s office and a sharp warning or detention, now become the basis for out-of-school suspension, expulsion, or, increasingly, a trip to the police station. While white children have become victims of the school-to-prison pipeline, it is students of color who feel its effects most harshly.

"The transformation of schools from institutions of learning to places more reminiscent of prisons exacts a daily toll on all students."'

The clearest indication of this criminalization has been the proliferation of law enforcement in our schools. Police officers have become a regular and growing presence in schools across America, particularly in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Instead of investing in guidance counselors and librarians, school districts are pouring money into school resource officers to patrol schools, permanent metal detectors and state-of-the-art surveillance systems. Often students must submit to regular and invasive searches of their bags, coats and lockers from police officers. A place that should be a safe and enriching environment has increasingly taken on the air of a penal colony. The result has been a corresponding increase in kids being pushed out the school-house door and through the prison gates.

Fifteen-year-old Kyle Thompson is one such victim. A year ago, the black freshman got into a playful tug-of-war with his teacher over a note. When Kyle saw the situation had turned from lighthearted to serious in a flash, he dutifully handed the note to his teacher. The incident got Kyle placed in handcuffs, then put on house arrest, and ultimately expelled from all state public schools for a year because of Michigan’s zero-tolerance laws -- laws which take kids like Kyle and harshly punish them regardless of the circumstances.

The impact on students like Kyle is severe and long-lasting. Pushing children down the school-to-prison pipeline by taking them out of school and placing them in the criminal justice or juvenile detention system all but eliminates their chances of getting into college or even graduating from high school.

These policies, statistics show, disproportionately affect black students.

In the United States, 16% of all students enrolled in U.S. public schools are black, while 51% are white. Nevertheless, black students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students, according to data recently released by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. More damning is the fact that black students account for 31% of all school-related arrests when they make up only one-sixth of the public school population. In other words, there’s a one-in-three chance that every time a police officer leads a student out of school in handcuffs, that student is black.

The harmful impact is not limited to those students actually expelled from schools. The transformation of schools from institutions of learning to places more reminiscent of prisons exacts a daily toll on all students. Children get the message, and it angers them and tears at their self-esteem. They feel the stigma of suspicion and lower expectations that comes with schools that feel more like cell blocks patrolled by guards than safe places administered by teachers who care about them and their future. “They’re treating us like criminals, like we’re animals,” one New York City public school student told ACLU researchers a few years ago.

In 1954, the problems of racial discrimination were explicit. Today they are subtle and structural. The Supreme Court in Brown may have put an end to de jure segregation, but the school-to-prison pipeline is once again teaching children of color that they are indeed separate, and certainly not equal.

Dennis Parker is the director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program.