A student jumping over a cafeteria table and kicking a peer in the face might seem like a suspension-worthy offense, but according to my former school in the South Bronx, it only merits a warning. So when the Huffington Post claims that the Mississippi’s Meridian school district violates students’ rights by creating a “prison pipeline,” it does not come as a big surprise. When schools are unable to discipline children inside of their schools, student behaviors eventually escalate until the only option is arrest. While the Mississippi incidents are shocking, you don’t have to go all the way to Mississippi to understand the prison pipeline.
Any child in a system without consequences will test his boundaries. That process starts in first grade when he fails to hand in homework and there is little or no response. Next, he shouts at the teacher in class. That also occurs without consequence. Next he ups the ante and walks out of class without permission. Again, there is no consequence, except maybe an escorted walk back to class with a security guard or administrator.
Based on feedback by adults—or lack thereof—the child begins to understand his impulses as socially acceptable. Now he throws a chair, threatens violence, sexually harasses a teacher—the list goes on. Still, there are no consequences for his egregious behavior. By continuing to test the limit, the student soon faces arrest and leaves the school in handcuffs.
But wait. Why is there a consequence only now?
We cry outrage at the arrests, but where is the anger before then, when teachers, students and staff lack the support they need? I have experienced that lack of support first hand.
Despite following protocol, such as issuing a written statement and informing the principal and the union leader of the incidents, nothing happened for my students. Principals regularly talk about their inability to suspend without permission from superintendents.
Teachers cannot even enforce a lunch or after-school detention because of rules about keeping students after hours. And we can’t begin to dream about some sort of counseling or emotional support for these students without the systems and finances necessary for these programs to be successful.
The silver lining is that enabling schools to enforce consequences for behavior does allow them to create supportive environments. While charter schools are not the end-all-be-all answer to these problems, my current school is proof of what can happen when teachers and staff are empowered to teach right from wrong.
Luckily, I’ve never faced verbal or sexual harassment, nor physical assault, from my students in my current school. My students have never seen a peer taken away in handcuffs. But this was not the case at my former school.
At my former school, teachers had specific and limiting guidelines for almost everything I could imagine.
For example, if I wanted to enforce detention, I had to make sure that I had parent permission slips signed with the specific dates and times. This permission slip would often be conveniently lost by the student.
If a scholar missed detention, I could not enforce any other consequence.
At my current school, we have an automated system that calls a family when their student is assigned a detention. The call is placed the night before and is the only confirmation we need as permission for the scholar to stay after school. If a student skips detention, the child receives in-school suspension where he or she will spend time with our deans and our detention coordinator.
This system is not impossible for a traditional public school to recreate but, in my experience, there are just too many barriers that keep it from happening. Educators should not have to fight through paperwork and broken systems to teach our children right from wrong.
The Mississippi arrests are appalling but not nearly as appalling as the status of school discipline systems in New York City—and dare I say through the United States. Without a consequence ladder, how will our students ever learn right from wrong? It is time to give all schools the flexibility granted to charter schools so they have a fair shot at creating strong school cultures and truly preparing their children for life. It is simply unfair to throw children suddenly into the real world through prison when we were unable to do our part during their childhood.
Tamara Gilkes is a 2012 School Reform Blogging Fellow for NYCAN. She teaches sixth- and seventh-grade science at Achievement First Bushwick Middle School. Outside of the classroom, Tamara advocates with Educators 4 Excellence to include teachers in school policy decisions. She previously served as a Teach for America corps member in the South Bronx.