An Open Discussion about the School To Prison Pipeline

/ February 20, 2024

RARE’s Open Discussions returned on January 29, 2024, with a stimulating and enlightening evening with a panel discussing some of the causes of, as well as positive steps to mitigate, the School To Prison Pipeline (STPP) that has persisted for generations in America. The STPP is a troubling issue that disproportionately affects Black and Brown youth, most of whom are from predominantly low-income areas, at a staggering cost to families and to society as a whole.

The STPP discussion was the RARE’s first Open Discussion of 2024. It was co-produced by RARE and the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee of Seattle Council of PTSA. The moderator for the evening was Seattle Public School alum and University of Washington student Trevon Mitchell who is currently studying in the Foster School of Business.

The panel consisted of Sharonda Willingham, Principal at SPS’s Interagency School; Lamaria Pope and Johnny Walker Jr., both Program Managers at Choose 180; Molly Mitchell, Director of Student Support Programs at Seattle Central College (and current SPS mom!); and Dana Brown, a private attorney in Seattle, specializing in juvenile defense.

After a poignant land acknowledgment by June Nho, followed by a moment of silence for Chief Sealth High School student, Mobarak Adam, who was a victim of gun violence in West Seattle, the meeting was handed over to the Open Discussions Chair, Robin Lange, who welcomed all guests and introduced the moderator and panelists.

Trevon Mitchell began the questioning by asking panelists their perspectives on the STPP and how they have seen it manifest in their communities. To all of them, STPP is no abstraction, as they’ve seen first-hand the effects of young people excluded from school, often into the juvenile justice system. Attorney Dana Brown cited “zero tolerance policies” that many schools and districts have adopted as the primary cause for the high numbers of students who end up in the criminal justice system. In Dana’s experiences, she noted how many administrators turned to common discipline practices as a “more simple” way to deal with a problem and move on rather than to seek any form of restorative justice. She noted the harm done by excluding and isolating these young people when they are most vulnerable and in need of support has lasting negative consequences for them and their families.

Molly Mitchell agreed, and added that schools always address behaviors, but rarely ask why they are happening. “When people show up (to school) angry, when people show up hurt, when people don’t show up at all,” Molly said, “those are symptoms… that when at eleven or twelve, most kids don’t have the emotional intelligence to regulate.” She noted that the many disciplinary actions punish students by separating them. Many of those kids who get separated and punished become desensitized and used to the exclusion. She suggested that if some of the money spent on isolation or “cages” could be spent on preventative measures the cost to society would greatly diminish.

Trevon followed with a question about disciplinary policies in the classroom. Sharonda Willingham was critical. She said that discipline was often used as a scapegoat for lack of better solutions. She encouraged schools to look at students’ and educators’ emotional intelligence. “Corporations offer therapy for employees who are struggling. Why can’t schools?” Lamaria Pope agreed. “We need to enforce more restorative practices within the admin’ and within the teachers. They need to know what that truly looks like… then they can understand the push down into the young people.” She cites the need for more restorative practices with the teachers as well.    Lamaria noted that for many students, survival is difficult, and they often go to school on edge. LaMaria used herself as an example.  Despite having grown up in low-income housing, she graduated from high school with a 3.6 GPA, but still wasn’t all that aware of how the world worked. “I didn’t even know what credit was,” she said, and lamented the lack of awareness of services, little secrets she called them, available to students who are hurting. She added that with more survival services young people can beat that school to prison pipeline.

For many at-risk students, the issues, ranging from hunger to emotional abuse, are immense. Sharonda Willingham stated, “How can schools connect with families, especially with those who are struggling? How can we change the socio-economics?” Rather than prisons and isolation she added, “We need to invest in education and mental health.”

Lamaria’s colleague at Choose 180, Johnny Walker Jr. added, “We need to meet students where they are. We need to know their issues, to communicate. To show students that we care.”  He too lamented what are other “little secrets” most educational staffs are unaware of: the painful stories and stresses that students take with them to school. Johnny added that the most effective remedies are mentorship programs where students can meet daily with a trusted adult.

Dana Brown wants to see greater outreaches to parents. Sharonda Willingham also emphasized greater communication. She said collaboration is more effective in solving problems than punishment.

Before opening the session up for questions and comments, Trevon asked the panel to give examples of alternatives to damaging, exclusionary discipline. All panelists heartedly endorsed mentorship programs and cited examples where truancy dropped significantly in schools where every student has an in-school mentor that he or she sees daily. Dana Brown stated that schools need to think outside the box and develop strategies that reinforce positive behaviors. She suggested that schools enter into contracts with students who have returned from suspensions that would allow their suspensions to be erased from their records in return for good behavior over a period of time. The panelists agreed that schools need to do better for students returning from suspensions by implementing constructive “re-engagement strategies”.  Switching schools was also floated as a possible benefit.

The evening concluded with a short, lively discussion. Much of the discussion involved the importance of diagnosing learning disabilities. One panelist noted that some students want to get kicked out of class rather than appear stupid in front of their peers. In a telling analogy, Molly Mitchell noted the vastly different levels of support afforded to private school students than to those in the public schools. She gave an example of what would happen to two students, one in a private school, the other in a public school, who were caught dealing drugs. The scenarios likely played out would be that the offense in the private school would be dealt with by parents, counselors, possibly therapists, and other staff. Not so with the public school student who would likely be pointed to the juvenile criminal justice system.

The School to Prison Pipeline is a living reality for millions of young Americans, a disproportionate percentage of whom are students of color. As the Open Discussion panelists pointed out, many of these young Americans have learning disabilities and/or come from low income and impoverished homes. Too many of our young people, at the height of their vulnerability where educational support and a sense of belonging are vital, are being funneled out of learning structures and into the streets where the juvenile justice system subjects them to irreparable harm.

Trevon Mitchell concluded the Open Discussion by asking what can be done? Hopefully RARE’s Open Discussion of January 29 made a difference by airing the tragedy of the Schools to Prison Pipeline by an informed panel. All the panelists pointed to the causes that lead to incarceration of young Americans and offered solutions to this national shame.

RARE would like to extend a hearty thank you to Trevon Mitchell, Dana Brown, Molly Mitchell, Lamaria Pope, Johnny Walker Jr., and Sharonda Willingham for joining RARE in a lively discussion and publicly bringing into the open the inequitable and unfair disciplinary  that contribute to the School to Prison Pipeline that is so harmful to America.