This post is written by NCTE member Jamal Cooks.
I am a married, African American professor of education with two children. My children observe me as an educator working with teachers. They watch me mentor dozens of young people about school, work, and life and get awards for my teaching, research, and service. Although I work diligently to model appropriate social behavior, they also see how I can be viewed by society, which does not always match how they and others I work with see me. My children have witnessed me getting pulled over by the police and watched #BlackLivesMatter on the news. Instead of running from the truth, we have conversations about being Black in America that include how to act with police and what their rights are as people. We discuss how there is a systematic plan in operation that does not have the best interests of people of color at the center of its motivation. As a result of these conversations, my children are very aware of the school-to-prison pipeline (STPP) and the need to give suggestions about how to dismantle it.
The STPP is the most urgent educational issue of 2016. The STPP “describe[s] the increasing patterns of contact students have with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems as a result of the recent practices implemented by educational institutions, specifically zero tolerance policies and the use of police in schools.” I have taught secondary school, directed after-school programs, coached hundreds of student athletes, and trained teachers and administrators for more than twenty years and I cannot think of a more pressing issue facing our education system.
The problem with the way the STPP is being discussed in many media outlets is that everyone is pointing the finger at someone else or, better yet, passing the buck. Instead of placing the blame on individuals and individual bureaucracies, we must challenge the entire structure of our system and understand that ALL mentioned parties are tasked with dismantling the STPP.
First, we have to realize as a society that it takes a village to raise a child. When people decide that children are a precious commodity, a gift, a jewel, then we can all agree to protect and provide for them in positive ways by any means necessary. Parents and families must take responsibility and be accountable for the words and deeds of their children while still helping others raise their children. The general public needs to understand that we are all different and that not to acknowledge differences is a problem. We cannot deal with racism and issues of diversity without talking about the differences and moving toward shared language, concerns, and perspectives to improve society as a whole. Dealing with the family, home, and community aspects can contribute to dismantling the STPP.
Second, schools must stop with the zero tolerance policies and procedures. Teachers need more professional development around providing a culturally relevant approach to teaching in order to improve the teaching and learning for all students. Through culturally relevant pedagogy, students of color gain greater self-respect and better understand how the world operates for them. In addition, non-kids of color gain a healthy respect for the achievements and accomplishments of students of color.
School resource officers need to develop relationships with students and employ tactics that encourage positive behavior, not arrest or employ violence as a matter of course. Legislatures need to stop creating laws that disproportionately impact African Americans. The judicial system needs to show compassion and understanding by helping and rehabilitating young offenders rather than automatically penalizing them. The goal should be to keep young people in schools – to educate them and teach them skills.
As educators, we can be instrumental in changing this narrative around the STPP. Educators can create engaging environments to motivate students who then want to learn in classrooms. Literacy educators can help students learn how to use reading, writing, oral communication, and technology as weapons against oppression. As teachers, we are able to show our students that they are important, smart, and loved and that education is a way to a good life. In the end, we have to ask ourselves what WE are doing to dismantle the STPP.
Jamal Cooks is a professor of language, literacy, and culture in the Department of Secondary Education in the Graduate College of Education at San Francisco State University. Dr. Cooks has been an advocate for students, urban communities, and teachers for more than 20 years.