When thinking about the need to end the school-to-prison pipeline, Alex often remembers a time when he was teaching a 3rd grade class at an MPS elementary school on Milwaukee’s near north side: “Our class was on the first floor and we were about to go into a science lesson when a police car pulled up to the curb right outside the school. The lights and sirens weren’t on – the police car simply pulled over to park. I immediately sensed a shift in energy in my students. At least three of them started crying. The fact that eight and nine year-old Black youth react this way to seeing a police car is a tragic indication of the violence and deep trauma that our Black students and community have experienced at the hands of law enforcement. As a school district that serves mostly Black and Brown youth, our school board of directors has to do everything it can to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and create healthy school environments where students can feel safe, learn and thrive.”
As a candidate for Milwaukee School Board District 5 and informed by Black and Brown youth-led organizations working to address this issue, Alex has some ideas for what can be done to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. But first, let’s get on the same page on just some of the facts about inequitable school discipline policies in Milwaukee and Wisconsin that lead to the criminalization of mostly Black and Brown youth.
According to a recent report from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Race to Results,” Wisconsin is the worst place to grow up if you are a Black child. In Wisconsin, 38% of the incarcerated population are Black, even though Black people only make up 6% of the state population overall (Sakala, 2014). This disparity is due in part to the school-to-prison pipeline and the way our white-centered society perceives the behavior of youth of color versus white children.
Research shows that society tends to “medicalize the struggles of white children while criminalizing those of minority children” (Morgan et al. 2017). They found that children of color were less likely to receive special education supports and resources when they needed them when compared to their white peers (Morgan, 2017) .This internal bias also becomes an issue because students who have been involved in the criminal justice system will then face discrimination when they re-enter the educational system (Heitzeg, 2014), impacting their ability to thrive when they become adults.
It is the responsibility of the Milwaukee School Board to fix these problems, and they need to do so as soon as possible. Too many Black and Brown youth are being criminalized instead of being given the resources – or simply the benefit of the doubt – that is so readily handed to their white peers. We have seen disparities in the disciplinary treatment of students of color at MPS. According to a 2018 report, from “From Failure to Freedom,” by Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) and the Center for Popular Democracy, in Milwaukee, “Black students account for 84.6 percent of referrals to law enforcement, while they made up only 55 percent of the student population in Milwaukee.” (Our campaign recommends you read the entire “From Failure to Freedom” report to get a more comprehensive understanding of this issue, as this blog post hardly does it justice). This criminalization leads Milwaukee’s Black and Brown youth to the criminal justice system, causing trauma and mental health issues.
These problems are unacceptable and must be addressed immediately. As a candidate for Milwaukee School Board District 5, Alex’s progressive platform includes unapologetically standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter at School and working to end the school-to-prison pipeline.
Our progressive campaign also stands in solidarity with the Youth Power Agenda set forth by LIT. LIT is a BIPOC and youth-led organization that has already helped make great strides in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline and addressing disciplinary disparities. Those closest to the problem are often the closest to the solutions, and elected officials and our entire community need to continue to trust and follow their leadership. As a school board director, Alex would be honored to work with LIT student leaders to achieve as much of the Youth Power Agenda agenda as possible when elected.
In addition, Alex strongly believes that we need to expand restorative justice practices in all of our schools to focus on healing trauma and harm, rather than punishment. We need to invest in wraparound services and community schools for our students to be able to meet them where they’re at, instead of criminalizing their behavior. Alex also believes that all MPS employees, regardless of job class, need to take part in anti-racist and trauma-informed professional development training, and that the district needs to prioritize hiring and retaining high-quality educators and staff, especially educators and couselors of color.
As a substitute teacher for seven years in MPS, Alex has seen another issue that contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline and disciplinary disparities that must be addressed: teacher and staff turnover. Alex has witnessed this common cycle of educator turnover that does not work for students of color in his time teaching in MPS:: a newly hired teacher, most likely a white person, comes into a new classroom environment and lacks cultural competency. Next, the teacher has possible conflicts with students, most likely BIPOC students, that lead to referrals, various disciplinary measures and, eventually, student criminalization. Frustrated and ill-equipped to work with MPS’ Black and Brown student population, the new teacher quits, and is then replaced by another newly-hired teacher or a substitute teacher, and the cycle continues.
This cycle leads to instability for students and school staff. Teachers can better support students when they have time to build trusting relationships with them, which leads to more empathy for both students and teachers, and helps reduce disciplinary measures. Over the past seven years as a substitute teacher,Alex has seen environments like this over and over again. It’s not good for students or school staff, it needs to stop.
We can work to solve teacher turnover by recruiting more high-quality educators, especially educators of color, by offering pay and benefits to beginning teachers that help retain them through their first years of teaching. We can also offer new teachers more support: educational opportunities, better training in working with communities of color, reducing class sizes, and in-classroom support such as the full-time presence of a paraprofessional.
Our schools need to prioritize policies that work for our Black, Brown and Indigenous students instead of criminalising their behavior. As a school board director, Alex will stand in solidarity with BIPOC students calling for an end to the school-to-prison pipeline and advance bold policies to create a more just, equitable and safe school system for all.
HEITZEG, N. (2014). CHAPTER ONE: Criminalizing Education: Zero Tolerance Policies, Police in the Hallways, and the School to Prison Pipeline.
Morgan, P. L., Farkas, G., Hillemeier, M. M., & Maczuga, S. (2017). Replicated Evidence of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Disability Identification in U.S. Schools. Educational Researcher, 46(6), 305-322. doi:10.3102/0013189×17726282
Sakala, L. (2014, May 28). Breaking down mass incarceration in the 2010 census. Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/rates.html
“Race for Results.” The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, www.aecf.org/resources/race-for-results/.
“From Failure to Freedom.” Leaders Igniting Transformation and the Center for Popular Democracy, https://populardemocracy.org/sites/default/files/FailureToFreedom.pdf.