Delaware leaders address the school to prison pipeline

(Nichelle Polston/WHYY)

(Nichelle Polston/WHYY)

Is there really a school to prison pipeline? If not, then how do so many students of color end up in prison?

On Thursday, the Hope Commission and Teach for America Delaware came together to answer those questions as well as discuss the racial disparities in the education and criminal justice systems.

“We’ve got to acknowledge there’s this school to prison pipeline. It’s a clear pathway and track that young people are on, just like there’s a track for college preparation, culinary arts, cosmetology, and pre-law, there are some young people on a track toward prison,” said Dr. Malik Muhammad, one of four panelists who addressed the issue.

According to Dr. Muhammed, there are policies and practices that directly and indirectly push students out of school and or prepare them for prison.

“One is if [our school environments] are deeply steeped in the punitive model that shows a young person who does something wrong, that our sole focus is what we need to do to them in terms of consequence. And so we are preparing young people by allowing them to develop a credential of negative interaction with school,” he said.

Muhammed referenced data provided to the American Civil Liberties of Delaware by the Department of Education. In 2013, black students in Delaware made up only 32 percent of the student body, but accounted for 62 percent of out-of-school suspensions.

“The life expectancy for one who doesn’t have his high school diploma is 39 years old and the one who does is 59 years old.  So what is the value of a high school diploma? This is about getting our young men of color to be high school graduates and if we interrupt the school to prison pipeline, it’s about saving lives,” Muhammad said.

Charles Madden, executive director of the Hope Commission, which helps men released from prison transition back into society, weighed in on the subject as well.

“My sense is that when we think about the systems that contribute to the school to prison pipeline we forget about the individuals and the leaders who are responsible for these systems. I don’t think as individuals we hold our leadership accountable for the failures of these systems,” Madden said.

Madden said the number of people who return back to incarceration is alarming, adding that 77 percent of the men in the system return.

“There is no one place to lay the blame. It’s across the board and families are certainly fundamental to the solution, but when families are torn apart by incarceration, that impacts their ability to really build healthy communities,” Madden said.

“So our work- focusing on men- we think that is a critical component when you look across these communities and you see 6 out of 10 men are not participating in mainstream society, then I think that has a far reaching effect in our schools and in the safety of our communities and so forth,” Madden added.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.