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The school that I attended for my first three years of high school was a very under-funded public school composed of majority BIPOC students.  Fights and expulsions were common occurrences  at my school, roughly one occurring every week or so.  However, it was also common for those who committed minor offenses to be sent to the office where they remained for the next hour before they were sent back to the classroom unpunished.  Upon returning to class, the teacher almost always expressed frustration and exhaustion displaying the lack of communication amongst staff.

Those who were removed from the school through suspension or expulsion were sent to the alternative high school, where my mother just so happened to work for over five years.  At the alternative school, the student body was overwhelmingly composed of marginalized students from low-income and non-traditional families, students with substance abuse problems, and students with pre-existing criminal backgrounds.

Putting all of the ‘misbehaved’ students in a separate institution promoted stereotype threat through which students began to internalize the thoughts and opinions of their classmates and their teachers, causing them to think that they themselves were inherently bad and incapable of being in the traditional school setting. Further, placing all of these children in one setting with no other  “traditional” students led to them negatively influencing one another to the point of polarizing their misconduct.  It becomes an abyss of apathy with so many detractors from the goal of empowering them with education.  This vacuum of “bad” behavior combined with the socioeconomic, racial, and familial factors that are often correlated with higher crime rates, made these students particularly vulnerable to targeted policing, both inside and outside of the school system.

My mother watched her students repeatedly receive disciplinary action from their home schools and end up in the alternative setting, when in reality, majority of them would have benefitted from therapy and social resources that would allow them to better adapt to a traditional school setting. However, these resources were not available in our school district.  If the root of these children’s behavior could not be addressed at the home institution, there should have at least been resources provided to the students placed in the alternative school to address the reasons they had been sent there and to prevent them from becoming “frequent fliers.”

Several of my mother’s students went on to commit crimes while they were in the alternative setting, resulting in being sent to juvenile detention, or they committed crimes post-graduation. In both instances, these numbers are disturbingly high, so high that the criminalization has become normalized.  If we want to reduce criminal activity and  the overall number of individuals in the criminal justice system, we must start with the children.  We must recognize when mental health issues, substance abuse, and unstable family dynamics are impacting a student negatively in order to address these issues before they result in negative behavior, inside and outside of the classroom. 

As I have continued to emphasize throughout this program, addressing the root of the problem will result in a reduction of the problem overall. Addressing the environment and the stress of the child will inevitably decrease the number of individuals incarcerated as it will break the cycle of punishment.  Although, these schools must be granted access to therapists, social workers, guidance counselors, etc. in order to prevent the students’ stressors from manifesting in behavior that leads them to prison.  

The students that exhibit behaviors that result in repeated disciplinary action would benefit from a positive, nurturing environment where they are taught coping strategies and can work at their level to gain confidence, where they practice communication skills and are paired with mentors, and where they are introduced to various constructive career paths to which they have never been informed.  School-age is the time to identify, address, and intervene where students are failed at home and in the surrounding communities. The school to prison pipeline is real, and it must be broken.