Black Boys in Crisis: Solutions to the School-to-Prison Pipeline

In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.

People who fall outside this fringe group of perceived misfits may wonder why the school-to-prison pipeline should matter to them. Outside of caring about the quality of life for other individuals, which is really something that is not teachable, the school-to-prison pipeline matters in more tangible ways. Each federal prisoner costs taxpayers $28,948 per year based on 2012 statistics, which is about $79 per day. That’s a measurable cost. What isn’t measurable is the indirect impact those incarcerations have on the economy in terms of those prisoners not contributing to the work force. Sure, we may pay the salary of prison employees or the CEOs of large prison privatization corporations but we are missing out on the positive impact these prisoners could have on our economy.

This is an American problem.  It hurts everyone. If we want more high school graduates, less crime, and a more robust economy, we have to stop punishing black boys with school removals or discipline effects that don’t match the offense.

If removal and zero tolerance policies don’t help black boy students long term, what is the best way to discipline students when they do misbehave?

The best answer is found long before the moment when discipline is necessary. Prevention and intervention tactics need a place in all teaching pedagogy and those tactics must adjust for demographics – and individual students. Schools need to offer robust programs for at-risk students that include mentoring from older students, after-school tutoring, and customized learning. If all of this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is.

Technology is making the customized learning portion much easier though and also allowing teachers to analyze student performance in a streamlined way long before problems arise. And as simple as it sounds, teachers must approach behavior problems with students in the same way they approach academic problems – with an analytical eye that looks for the best solution that will benefit everyone. Notice that I didn’t say the easiest or best for all the other students in class. I said the best solution for everyone – teacher, peers, and individual student. The benefits to keeping a child in class, or at least in school, far outweigh emotionally kicking a child out of class or recommending suspension.

Educators can certainly strive to reduce suspension and expulsion rates with better intervention and strategy. But what about the students who choose to walk away from their educations when they drop out of high school?

Students who are at risk of dropping out of high school or turning to crime need more than a good report card.  They need alternative suggestions on living a life that rises above their current circumstances. For a young person to truly have a shot at an honest life, he or she has to believe in the value of an education and its impact on good citizenship. That belief system has to come from direct conversations about making smart choices with trusted adults and peers. If we know how much less a high school dropout makes than peers with a diploma, and peers with a college education, then we should tell all high school students that number.

It’s not enough to imply that dropping out of high school is a bad idea; students should have all the facts. For students who struggle socially or behaviorally in high school, schools should intervene with non-traditional options like online courses. This is also true for students who feel the pressure to start earning a living early. The technology is already in place for all students, regardless of discipline issues or life circumstances, to earn a high school diploma. A college degree is nice too, of course, but the true key to ending the school-to-prison pipeline for black boys is keeping them in classrooms instead of removing them, and getting them across the stage to receive their high school diplomas. It will take an organized ideology shift but it’s possible, even in the next generation of black boy students.

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