What the School-to-Prison Pipeline is Not

Misconceptions abound concerning what exactly the “school-to-prison pipeline” is. So instead of trying to concisely define it here, I would like to submit three things that the school-to-prison pipeline is not.

  1. The school-to-prison pipeline is not a matter of opinion. The school-to-prison pipeline is a metaphor to describe decades of observational research and quantifiable data relating specifically to school discipline policies and enforcement. That data bears out that the two greatest contributors to the school-to-prison pipeline are zero tolerance discipline policies and police presence in schools. I have written about zero tolerance policies here. The only legitimate way to deny the existence of the school-to-prison pipeline is to dispute the data. It is not an open discussion concerning all the possible societal factors contributing to the over-incarceration of black and brown youth. It is empirical evidence of a rather definitive nature.


  1. The school-to-prison pipeline is not a study in black culture. If you think it is, you are having a different conversation, a conversation that at best is rife with implicit bias. The school-to-prison pipeline is about our educational institutions contributing to the over-incarceration of people of color. It is about the criminalization of students of color in a misguided, decades-long, attempt to reduce school violence, “Why School Resource Officers Are Not Welcome in My Classroom.” Similarly, the school-to-prison pipeline is not a black problem. If anything, the school-to-prison pipeline could be described as a white problem, a problem created by white people, and a problem which white people are largely responsible for eradicating.
  1. The school-to-prison pipeline is not a “home life” problem. It’s not called the “home-to-prison” pipeline. The thing that created the school-to-prison pipeline is called institutional racism. Poverty did not create it. Single parent households did not create it. And perhaps most importantly, a lack of discipline at home did not create it. To blame parents or “home life” for the school-to-prison pipeline is to ignore the data in favor of our own implicit biases that do not challenge our systems and power structures. Culturally responsive teaching is a good tool for combating teacher implicit bias in the classroom. You can read more about culturally responsive teaching here. Unfortunately, “parent blaming” is most often utilized by educators as a survival technique or defense mechanism against the stress of dealing with students with persistent discipline issues.


Only when our schools have adequately dealt with institutional racism and teacher implicit bias can we then focus on “wrap around” services that assist students and their families with everyday needs. Our best efforts in community programs will not keep black and brown students out of the prison industrial complex as long as we continue to discipline, suspend, and expel them at disproportionate rates compared to their white classmates.

Individualism and Culturally Responsive Teaching

The education reform movement, characterized by standardized tests, charter schools, and voucher programs, is a product of both capitalism and individualism. The buzz word for the movement, which itself implies a commitment to individualism, is “choice.” The language is always about one student and never about all students. Reformers want schools to be marketplaces for individual consumption of information instead of communities of learners.

Public schools all across the nation have Individualized Education Programs or IEPs. These programs are specifically created to assist students who have been determined to have disabilities reach their educational goals. The goals and objectives of the IEP are “individualized” to meet the needs of each student eligible for the program. Furthermore, the presence of IEPs has moved classroom teachers toward a more individualized approach for all students.

The movement toward focusing on the individual student in traditional public schools is certainly to be praised. So many students are receiving vital accommodations that were unavailable before IEPs. The hyper individualism of the reform movement, however, is a danger to our public schools and even our democracy.

But how has the move toward individualism shown up in the classroom in unexpected ways?

In early February of this year, I hosted the Sunday night #oklaed chat on Twitter. The topic was “Race in Education.” You can find the archive here. One of the early questions that I asked was, “How do you respond to people who say that educators should be color blind?”

The response was encouraging. No one in the chat seemed to be interested in defending the idea of teachers “not seeing race.” It seems that many educators understand that race is a social construct, but one with very real meaning and implications. But often these same educators revert to individualistic thinking when addressing issues like classroom discipline and academic expectations.

White teachers have a tendency, when attempting to confront the stereotype of low academic expectations for students of color, to explicitly ignore race in favor of “seeing the individual.” Race in no way determines a student’s level of academic success. But race most certainly does effect a teacher’s expectations of student success. The key here is understanding that teachers unknowingly behave in ways that are based on biased norms of race relations developed over their lifetime. This is what is called implicit bias. When white teachers explicitly attempt to treat all students the same, they are sure to act implicitly on their own biases and ironically create a culture of inequity in the classroom.


Culturally responsive teaching is the antidote to our schools becoming over individualized. This Huffington Post article is a good introduction to culturally responsive teaching. To respond to a culture is ultimately to see something bigger than the individual. No one person constitutes a culture. To treat students as nothing more than individuals is to ignore culture. Teaching cannot respond to culture without first addressing the variety of expression/identity within race, gender, sexual orientation, and a host of other categories. There are many pedagogical examples of culturally responsive teaching including a book that I highly recommend by Christopher Emdin called, “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood …and the Rest of Y’all Too.”

To put it more succinctly, white teachers who don’t regularly address race will teach in a way that only responds to white culture. Male teachers who don’t regularly address gender will teach in a way that only responds to male culture. And heterosexual teachers who don’t regularly address orientation will teach in a way that only responds to heterosexual culture.

The Misguided Theology of Betsy DeVos

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos grew up in the Dutch Reformed community of Holland, Michigan. Mother Jones describes this idyllic town in a recent essay titled, “Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build ‘God’s Kingdom.’” In short, the low crime rate and well-manicured lawns of Holland, Michigan are no accident.


DeVos’ theology is largely influenced by neo-Calvinist theologian Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper called for a social policy known as “Pillarization.” Kuyper’s idea was that “pillars” like churches and denominations should create their own social institutions to stand parallel and alternative to the “pillars” of secular society. DeVos grew up in the ethnic tradition of the Christian Reformed Church. In Holland, Michigan, the people in line at the grocery store are Dutch Reformed. The postal workers are Dutch Reformed. The businesses are owned and operated by members of the Christian Reformed Church. DeVos attended Holland Christian High School (CRC) and Calvin College (CRC). It is safe to say that the vast majority of people who Betsy DeVos grew up around were religiously and ethnically similar to her and her family. As is the case in Holland, Michigan, pillarization often leads to isolationism. The person who is the head of our nation’s incredibly diverse public school system, grew up in a very sheltered, one-dimensional, and overwhelmingly white community.

In 1951, seven years before DeVos was born, American theologian and ethicist, Richard Niebuhr, wrote the highly influential book, “Christ and Culture.” In it, Niebuhr offers three categories for understanding how Christians and Christianity can function in relationship to culture: 1. Christ against culture, 2. Christ of culture, and 3. Christ above culture. Niebuhr further divides “Christ above culture” into 1. a synthesis version, 2. Christ and culture in paradox, and 3. Christ as transformer of culture. Niebuhr is often criticized for reducing broad theological traditions to such restrictive categories, but his influence in shaping Christian engagement in society is undeniable.

In an interview concerning educational philanthropy and vouchers, DeVos was quoted in 2001 saying that it was her desire to “confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” Much has been written recently about her reference to “God’s kingdom,” but the key word and the most alarming in her statement is “confront.” Niebuhr lists John Calvin, and his theological heritage, as examples of “Christ as transformer of culture.” This is what DeVos meant when she used the word “confront.” From a reformed perspective, the job of the Christian is to affirm what is good in culture and transform what is corrupted by sin. It is evident that DeVos thinks that much within the public school system is “corrupted by sin” and therefore needs to be confronted and transformed. But transformed into what and for whom?

At least one religious academic has written with intent to distance DeVos’ education policies from the influence of the Christian Reformed Church. Read it here. And of course, all theological perspectives (including non-Christian perspectives) should be welcomed and reflected in our nation’s policy makers. But what is clearly misguided about the DeVos approach to policy is not her theological beliefs themselves, but the way in which she allows those beliefs to be directly determinative of policy positions that are soon to effect over 50,000,000 students from diverse religious backgrounds in public schools all across the U.S.

Which Side Are You On?

Pete Seeger and his banjo made these words semi famous, but it was Florence Reece who wrote the words to the song, “Which Side Are You On,” in 1931 on a calendar in her kitchen after being harassed in her home by Sheriff J.H. Blair of Harlan County, Kentucky. Blair was attempting to intimidate Reece and her husband because of their work in organizing the United Mine Workers. In one verse she wrote, “They say in Harlan County, there are no neutrals there. You’ll either be a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair.”

The political divisiveness nationally and in the state of Oklahoma has brought us to a place where the question once again becomes entirely relevant, “Which side are you on?” And nowhere is this more apparent than in the fight over School Choice in Oklahoma. We have reached a place in the resistance to ESAs (vouchers) where there is no space for those who wish to remain neutral. The recent withdrawal of SB 560 is testimony to the fact that many “neutrals” are waking up and speaking out in support of public schools and public school funding. The vocal pro-voucher minority in Oklahoma are not finding the grassroots support they were hoping for.

School Choice will be studied by future generations as an issue with a clear “wrong side” and “right side” of history. The Editorial Board of The Oklahoman recently published Poor families lose with withdrawal of Oklahoma ESA bill in response to the demise of SB 560. The Oklahoman, like Donald Trump, Dr. Steve Perry, Kyle Loveless, and many other reformers, claims that School Choice is “the civil rights issue of our time.” By that they mean that supporting vouchers today is tantamount to the work of Ella Baker, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Clara Luper, and others during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The editorial goes so far as to quote Dr. King, implying that King would approve of the work of dismantling our public education system!

There is a great article over at Think Progress exposing the racist history of voucher programs. Please read it here. Then, more recently, Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, exploited and appropriated the work of leaders of Historically Black Colleges and University, claiming they were “pioneers in School Choice.” This piece is from Teaching Tolerance. School Choice proponents seem to think that being on the right side of history simply involves using the language of past leaders and movements. You can’t repackage the racist mechanisms of the past and sell them today as tools of social justice. All the social justice arguments in support of vouchers are surface level and never include many of the things of which Dr. King often spoke, including the negative effects of capitalism on communities of color and the radical redistribution of power and wealth.

I believe that most School Choice proponents are fully aware that vouchers will not help but only harm poor communities and communities of color. I also believe that a few are completely sincere in their claims of “civil rights.” In other words, it is possible to be on the wrong side of history for the right reasons. But in the end, the wrong side of history will always be the wrong side of history, and vouchers will always be the wrong side of history.

So which side are you on, #oklaed? Are you on the side of Clara Luper, civil rights leader, agitator, and public school history teacher? Or are you on the side that is coopting Dr. King’s words to support an elitist free market agenda? Oklaed’s updated last verse to “Which Side Are You On?” now reads, “Don’t scab for reformers. Don’t listen to their lies. Us teachers haven’t got a chance, unless we organize!” I’m pretty sure Florence Reece and Pete Seeger would approve.

Why School Resource Officers Are Not Welcome in My Classroom

The presence of armed police in public schools has risen steadily in the last twenty years as a result of increased funding from the US Department of Justice. These uniformed police are referred to as School Resource Officers (SROs) and are most common in secondary urban schools, middle and high school. The most cited purpose for police presence in schools is to provide protection in the event of an active shooter situation.

But this is not what SROs do on a day to day basis in our schools. If the job of the SRO was strictly to protect students and faculty from intruders, then SROs would never leave the front office and the main entrance to the building. But SROs can be found “patrolling” and providing supervision in the halls, gymnasium, cafeteria, and other gathering places for students. At some point the narrative concerning SROs switched from protecting students from outsiders to protecting teachers and administrators from students.

Oklahoma does not require special training for SROs. Specialized training is offered through the Oklahoma Association of School Resource Officers (OKASRO) and the Oklahoma School Security Institute (OSSI), but the vast majority of SROs nationwide do not receive any additional training in working with adolescents other than that which they receive through normal police training. The Atlantic

OSSI was created in 2013 as an initiative of Lieutenant Governor Todd Lamb in response to the Sandy Hook shooting in Connecticut. The Oklahoma Commission on School Security, put out the same year, OSSI, includes some valuable data relative to bullying and student mental health, both which have become ever more pressing issues facing schools since 2013. What the report does not do is make a necessary connection between school security and the increase of police presence. SROs are briefly mentioned as a possible part of a long term study goal. The biggest outcomes of the report seem to be a school security tip line and mandated intruder drills of which all students and teachers are now familiar.

Research shows that urban schools are no more at risk of shootings compared to suburban and rural schools. PsychLawJournal So why are SROs concentrated in urban schools with predominantly non-white student populations? SROs have the ability to expedite what is called the school-to-prison pipeline by eliminating all steps between the classroom and the jail cell. USNews As police presence in schools has risen, so has student arrests, and students are not behaving any different than before the presence of SROs.

So what are the power dynamics at play in schools with SROs? The answer lies partly in understanding the hierarchy of school discipline. To put it plainly, teachers refer to principals, and principals refer to SROs. In fact, the paperwork that accompanies a student who is sent to the office for discipline issues is often called a “referral.” The common understanding of referrals among teachers is that they are reserved for discipline issues that cannot be handled in the classroom.

Classroom discipline is tricky because of the difficulty in knowing the difference between behavior that disrupts learning / hurts other students and behavior that challenges the authority of the teacher. The former includes frequent disruptions, bullying, and physical violence. These issues are often difficult to address without parental and/or administrative involvement. The latter includes language, tone of voice, posture, eye contact, cell phones, and the list goes on. These issues can often be addressed one-on-one between teacher and student, but too often result in an angry teacher and a student in the principal’s office. Then when students speak back to principals in a similar manner, SROs are quickly called in and the situation escalates.

Schools are not the same as the streets and sidewalks of our communities. Almost every day over 100 students come through my room, 25 at a time, then go home at 3:20, and no one gets hurt or sent to the office, and that is nothing short of a miracle. Public schools do the miraculous every single day. If I get rattled every time a student gets an attitude with me, then I won’t last another week as a teacher. Yet this is how police function in our communities. If I show attitude toward police in a traffic stop, I am likely to be arrested. When people of color show attitude toward police (or not), the outcome is much worse. I simply do not understand why we would want this kind of authority inside our schools. Teaching is a power that has the possibility to corrupt. Police in schools is the kind of absolute power that corrupts absolutely. I have seen it too many times.

I want my classroom to be a place where my students feel safe. Safe from intruders, safe from bullying, safe from a volatile teacher, and safe from a power wielding SRO.

One Size Fits One

Among School Choice proponents, the most frequently occurring criticism of the public school system is that it is “one-size-fits-all.” Virtually every presenter at the Oklahoma School Choice Summit last month used this line. You know it’s a talking point when it is repeated in succession as if it is brand new information, some shocking revelation that will end the debate once and for all. Senator James Lankford (OK) used this phrase in a recent Facebook post expressing his support for then Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos.


On the surface, it appears as if Lankford is advocating for local control and less standardized testing. As a public school teacher, I agree 100% with his second paragraph. But, of course, he is not talking about high stakes or A-F. He’s talking about School Choice! The GOP has set up public education to fail and it follows a little something like this: 1. Highly regulate the public school system at both the federal and state level. 2. Criticize the system (that you created) for being one-dimensional. 3. Dismantle and privatize. But what’s more “one-size-fits-all” than the Republican created Oklahoma A-F school report card? What’s more monolithic than the corporate machine that spits out mandated multiple choice tests? It seems that most of the things that make Lankford uncomfortable with the present system are actually residual effects of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.”

But the criticism goes deeper. In School Choice circles, public schools are often described as “traditional” schools or, even worse, “government” schools. The idea here is that public schools have not changed for decades, centuries even. Nothing could be further from the truth. Public schools are in a constant state of change. Some changes are negative and come from without: teacher shortage, budget cuts, or more regulation. But the majority of change comes from within. Administrators applying new discipline strategies. Instructional coaches innovating with technology. Counselors implementing “wrap around” services. And teachers committed to the success of every student, every day.


For every legislative mandate of standardization and accountability, there is a teacher and parent driven individualized metric that is entirely student centered. Every public school offers IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) and Special Education services. Teachers are trained regularly in techniques such as differentiated instruction and RTI (Response to Intervention). Pre-Advanced Placement classes are offered as early as middle school. Consistent remediation occurs in co-taught classes, self-contained classes, after school (non paid) tutoring, and special remediation programs in math and reading.


The most sinister of all the accusations that public schools are “one-size-fits-all” cuts at the very nature of why public schools were started in the first place. Charter school principal and “School Choice” proponent, Dr. Steve Perry, puts it this way:


This statement is a criticism of the fundamental idea of neighborhood schools. I find two main problems with Dr. Perry’s question. First, as already mentioned, public schools come in all shapes and sizes and there is no “one type” of public school. Second, like so many other school reformers, Dr. Perry presumes upon one major societal factor, the ability of students to access educational opportunities outside of their community. What Dr. Perry calls “separated by zip code,” millions of Americans simply call their “neighborhood.” I have two questions in response to Dr. Perry’s. Why has working, shopping, and going to school in the same community suddenly become a bad thing? Why can’t we adequately fund neighborhood schools to provide a curricular and extracurricular focus that reflects the interests of students and families in each neighborhood?

Which begs the question, what can a charter or private school offer that a fully funded neighborhood school cannot? Many School Choice proponents would like to publicly fund education from a distinct Christian worldview, but that is another post. Otherwise, one question remains, what is “the same school model” which Lankford’s post references? Is it the desks, the bells, or the age based classrooms that are so harmfully uniform? There are many public school educators who are currently rethinking these systems to the extent that legislation allows. Besides, last time I checked, most charter and private schools (with few exceptions like Montessori Schools) also have desks, bells, and age based classrooms.

Rather than being “one-size-fits-all,” public schools are on the front line of innovation in education. The American public school system is the best in the world at educational access. gadflyonthewallblog Public schools teachers are adept at creating a classroom environment where “one-size-fits-one.” And desks are increasingly missing from public school classrooms. I would encourage any education reformer to visit any two public schools, and compare and contrast the experiences.




Teaching (History) While White

Much has been written, though not enough, concerning the dynamics of a public school system where the teacher workforce is increasingly white, and the student demographic nonwhite . Studies show that in California, the percentage of white teachers is roughly equal to the percentage of nonwhite students, around 70 percent. Center for American Progress Teaching Tolerance has a great resource for white educators facing this predicament known as “teaching while white.” Teaching Tolerance

My own experience as a white teacher in a school that is roughly 64 percent nonwhite has been very formative in my personal understanding of implicit bias, institutional racism, and white privilege. This is compounded by the fact that I teach American slavery as part of my 8th grade U.S. History curriculum. All white educators have an obligation to address race relations as a classroom reality. White teachers must affirm their whiteness to students of color, and seek to create an environment that minimizes implicit bias toward those students. Furthermore, it is imperative for white history teachers, in an effort to teach the development of race relations in the U.S., to consistently connect to the ways those developments continue to effect the teacher-student relationship in their own classroom.

Allowing my Whiteness into the Classroom

The examples of my curriculum and classroom management colliding in this way are too numerous to write about here. One rather significant story will serve the point. I have never personally had much interest in genealogy. This detachment may be related to not feeling a strong sense of “home” having moved a lot when I was growing up. Over the last four years of teaching American slavery, the desire to have my students connect with their own past has grown each year. But in effort to connect my students with their past, I have failed to connect with my own. This became brazenly apparent to me last semester in an impromptu interaction with one of my African American students. In a moment during direct instruction, the student interrupted me and asked a very pointed question, “Did your ancestors own slaves?”

I am well acquainted with difficult discussions involving race. It’s something I embed into each and every lesson plan. But I must admit, I was not prepared for this question. I looked the student in the eye and said, “I don’t know the answer to that question. I should. But I don’t.” That was approximately three months ago. I am still in the process of answering that question. I do not think white guilt is the most productive path toward racial healing, but these are the moments that teaching history gives to white educators as opportunities not to be overlooked or feared.

White Privilege in the Classroom

I am quite careful in my classroom about partisan politics, and my language was especially cryptic during the election last year. However, I unashamedly promote tolerance, multiculturalism, gender equity, LGBTQ+ rights, and anti-racism. And I have always felt comfortable critiquing the President of the United States, both then and now. I am fully aware that the freedom that I enjoy in my classroom is available to me in large part because of white privilege.

White privilege is of course, in the long run, a thing to be recognized and dismantled. But in the meantime, white privilege is something that can be employed in the shifting of ideas and the reorganizing of institutions away from racism. White history teachers cannot afford to speak in any way about this country’s long and continuing problem of white supremacy except boldly and unapologetically.

Teaching history while white is a daily undertaking. I still have more questions than answers. I still fail frequently, but I continue to go daily to difficult places for both me and my students. I still occasionally, awkwardly, and mistakenly ask my colleagues of color to be my confessors. I still wonder if I should be coordinating events for Black History Month. My teaching does not create representation for my students of color, but I can hope that my teaching creates an environment that is a microcosm of the lessons learned from the history of race relations in the United States.