The Other End of the School To Prison Pipeline

Lawprof and member of the United States Civil Rights Commission Gail Heriot is no greater fan of the School to Prison pipeline than anyone else. And yet, her approach comes from a direction that few consider, and fewer still find acceptable.

During the Obama Administration, one of the Department of Education’s primary missions was to stop schools from suspending or otherwise disciplining African American students at higher rates than white or Asian American students:

… One of its primary strategies would be for its Office for Civil Rights (OCR) to pore over statistical evidence from every school district, looking for evidence of racial disparate impact in discipline. When a school district was found to be disciplining African-American students at a significantly higher rate than Asian or white students, the school district could expect to be subjected to an investigation. As one media report put it, rather than waiting for “cases [to] come in the door,” the Obama Administration “plans to use data to go find [civil rights] problems.”

Baked into this approach are three things of significance. First is disparate impact. Second is empricism. Third is the elimination of an outcome that has proven societally disastrous, that black students grow up to be black prisoners.

But there is a fourth aspect to the DoE’s approach, one that is tacitly understood by every grocery clerk with a checklist.

Almost everyone has had experience with distant bureaucracies. Even when their edicts are reasonably nuanced, by the time they reach the foot soldiers on the ground (in this case classroom teachers), any subtlety has disappeared. “Don’t discipline minority students unless it is justified” is naturally understood by school district administrators as “Don’t discipline a minority student unless you are confident that you can persuade some future federal investigator whose judgment you have no reason to trust that it was justified.”

In turn, this is presented to principals as “Don’t discipline a minority student unless you and your teachers jump through the following time-consuming procedural hoops designed to document to the satisfaction of some future federal investigator whose judgment we have no reason to trust that it was justified.”

Finally, teachers hear the directive this way: “Just don’t discipline so many minority students; it will only create giant hassles for everyone involved.” This is in the nature of bureaucracy. Those who complain that schools overreact to governmental directives are howling at the moon. It is inevitable.

Regardless of the validity of the first three, and the assumptions upon which they’re premised, the lofty goals at the top of the bureaucratic food chain are simplified, then oversimplified, then simplified again, until they’re ultimately carried out in the classroom by teachers who are instructed to do nothing to produce numbers that will bring the wrath of Washington down upon their school.

But does this solve anything?

The danger should have been obvious. What if an important reason more African-American students were being disciplined than white or Asian students was that more African-American students were misbehaving? And what if the cost of failing to discipline those students primarily falls on their fellow African-American students who are trying to learn amid classroom disorder?

This is what’s meant by the “soft prejudice of low expectations,” as if black kids can’t control themselves and not misbehave in school, so we need to cut them a special break. And as Heriot notes, the burden of the break falls on other black kids who want to learn.

But that, unfortunately, isn’t the end of the story. What other studies show is that when white students engage in the same disciplinary problems as black kids, they don’t get suspended or expelled as readily. Teachers are wont to treat students the same for the same conduct, finding rationalizations for cutting white kids a break when they can’t manage to excuse black kids. This is the input side of the School to Prison pipeline, as students who get suspended and expelled don’t end up learning, don’t end up going to Harvard, don’t end up vested in society.

The question seems to be whether we’re better off with a Type 1 or Type 2 error, but this is a false dichotomy. These are all kids, children whose futures depends on the ability of a teacher to teach them as well as guide them toward a future as productive, law-abiding and educated adults. When the input side is blown on racial assumptions that treat black kids more harshly than white kids for the same conduct, the outcome is predetermined.

Heriot’s point, that ignoring disciplinary breaches by kids based on race is not only counterproductive, but harmful to the very students it purportedly seeks to help. The other kids in the class can’t learn if the teacher’s time is squandered on dealing with disciplinary problems because they’re given rules precluding their dealing with the problem.

But if they can tolerate a white kid with disciplinary problems, then there’s no rational basis for the inability to deal with any other kid disrupting their classroom. Perhaps the problem here has less to do with kids being disruptive than it does with teachers being incapable of doing their job to control disruption and recognizing their own prejudice in dealing with it.

Even more than teachers, however, is the dictates from on high that filter down to the classroom to not think but run the numbers to keep the DoE bean counters at bay. If we cannot expect teachers to police their own failures, their own prejudice, to think, then these kids have little chance of not getting shoved into the pipeline. Yet another example of the soft prejudice of low expectations, but this time of the very people charged with educating our youth. Is it really too much to ask of a school administrator, or a teacher, to think?

22 thoughts on “The Other End of the School To Prison Pipeline

  1. B. McLeod

    As times have evolved, teaching has come to not require a high level of education or competence, and teachers do not get paid princely sums for their work. or even enjoy much personal safety. It is not surprising that the job has become 90% not-making-waves-with-the-bureaucracy, which is all-pervasive. So when they think, that is (naturally enough) what they think about. It ties in with “How can I survive to draw my pension?”

    1. SHG Post author

      What country are you from? Public school teachers were not required to have a high level of education or be paid well in the past. But that’s got nothing to do with their caring about their students. You don’t need a Ph.D. in molecular physics to teach third grade, but you sure as shit need to want your students to learn how to read and be willing to do what it takes to make that happen.

      1. B. McLeod

        I would not be optimistic about the fate of a child who passes out of first and second grades not knowing how to read, as the child is most likely to be passed on to the fourth grade with the same issue.

      2. Drew

        I’m not exactly disagreeing with that, but I think when it comes to discipline, subject-matter competence matters. It’s the concept of institutional vs. personal authority. I’m not an expert in this, but it’s something that gets talked about in the military in terms of officers maintaining discipline, but rarely enters the educational context.

        1. SHG Post author

          The attempted analogy between the military and public schools doesn’t really help much. They’re not similar, no less the same.

  2. SPM

    The real question is why the OCR has not commented on “disparate impacts in discipline” based on gender. IF there are in fact no differences between the genders, then there should be no difference in the rate of disciplinary actions. Or to take it further, the difference in arrest, indictment, conviction, and incarceration rates between males and females should not exist.

    If you accept that boys are naturally more likely to get in trouble than girls, or men are more likely to be incarcerated than women, you have opened the door to argue that it is equally natural that a man is more likely to be President or CEO, or a General, or a Judge. I don’t particularly care on what side you find the bias, but if you find it on one side, it has to exist on the other.

    1. SHG Post author

      I really fucking hate it when someone writes “the real question is” when it’s not the real question, but a different question. A fair question, but not the real question. I mean, I really fucking hate it when someone does that.

        1. SHG Post author

          Am I not allowed to want either humor or illumination here? Is that too much to ask? And pastrami?

          1. LocoYokel

            Pastrami comes out of the brine tonight and into the smoker Saturday. Based on the reaction I got when it was re-iterated that the whole thing was being mailed off and that I had to mollify with the promise of a corned beef next week I don’t know that one of these will be happening more than once or maybe twice a year. But don’t bet on more than once.

          2. LocoYokel


            that was supposed to be the winky smiley face above ; ) not whatever that turned out to be.

  3. D-Poll

    I think you’re leaving out an important element here. What those same studies you mention also find (not that it gets reported in eg. the Times) is that white kids and black kids in the same schools get about the same level of punishment for the same amount of misbehaviour, and the disparity comes in in that misbehaving kids are punished more harshly in schools which have a higher percentage of black kids — ie, poor inner-city schools.

    It’s necessary to consider the context in which the suspensions and expulsion occur: schools with more general misbehaviour are likely to be less tolerant, as teachers and admins feel the need to “crack down” to regain control, and they are also likely to produce worse outcomes for students who don’t misbehave, don’t get suspended or expelled, because the “classroom disorder” you (and Heriot) identify is worse. Which means that, almost paradoxically, smaller things have a magnified effect on the other students at those schools, because any breach over the heightened baseline is worse than the same at a calmer school (for example, a fight that would have been broken up and put behind us within ten minutes in a typical suburban school could easily distract everyone for the rest of the day in a school where students are already barely paying attention). In this case it is again true that the disparate outcomes are the product of disparate starting points; it’s not so easily dismissed as “teachers need to do their jobs”.

    1. SHG Post author

      I don’t dismiss any of this easily, but someone has to ultimately be responsible for education and discipline. Admins and teachers are all we have at ground level, and that’s their job.

      1. D-Poll

        Well, I might suggest the parent or guardian has a role, but still, the point is taken. Nevertheless, to say “[…]if they can tolerate a white kid with disciplinary problems, then there’s no rational basis for the inability to deal with any other kid disrupting their classroom.” overlooks the possibility that, since the white kids and other kids may not be in the same classroom, it’s not necessarily personal bias that’s at fault.

      2. B. McLeod

        Yeah, but it isn’t working, and hasn’t worked for a long time. Sometimes, school systems will note that it isn’t working, but then they keep on keeping on.

  4. Fubar

    Even more than teachers, however, is the dictates from on high that filter down to the classroom to not think but run the numbers to keep the DoE bean counters at bay. … Is it really too much to ask of a school administrator, or a teacher, to think?

    As Ms. Heriot strove to explain,
    The bean counters wrong burdens have lain.¹
    We must ask the right question.
    My humble suggestion —
    Do the educrats have working brains?

    FN 1: RPN, or channeling my inner Yoda.

  5. Milwaukee

    I thought the purpose of schools was to deprive 6-18 year-olds of their right to a trial before incarceration, by forcing them to go to school, to become educated. Education is the purpose of schools, to train future members of society. This “high school-to-prison-pipeline” is bothersome on at least 2 counts. One is that it gives schools too much credit in the lives of the children. That is, the forces which lead them to a life of crime are beyond what happens in school. The other is that it exceeds the brief given to schools: educate the youth. This social justice thing doesn’t need to be added to the list of expectations, which most schools can’t meet anyhow.

  6. Nemo

    Say what you will about the problems in schools and their proposed solutions, but whatever solutions get approved and pushed, the implementation in the wild seems to always involve spending more money on administration, which leaves less available for the education side of things.

    While some administration is necessary for a school to function, taken to its illogical extreme, imagine the worst of the large poverty-zone schools in a big city having one teacher per grade level with the rest of the budget going to administration and leaving the spending on music, art, and sports where they were. Who would get blamed for the school’s issues?

    Given the history of the last few decades, the answer would appear to be “anyone other than the administrators”. Of course, it’s the administrators writing the answers to those questions, and deciding who needs to be hired to solve problems – and teachers aren’t the ones who get big contracts as problem-solvers. Those contracts go to…guess who?

    Maybe this isn’t sufficiently on-topic for this discussion, but even away from SJ, administrative overload never seems to be part of the discussion of what’s wrong with the schools. Maybe the schools should hire admins to look into the issue, amIrite?



    1. SHG Post author

      If we arrive at a solution, we then require admins to institute, oversee and review its effectiveness, for it we didn’t, how would we ever know what a great victory we achieved? We are, if nothing else, lovers of bureaucracy.

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