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Dismantling the pipeline

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When Mayor Joe Hogsett announced a partnership between the city and New York University to study crime trends in Indianapolis, truancy and graduation rates were cited as metrics for the study. 

The link is clear: a 2018 study found 80% of men in state or federal prisons didn’t have a high school diploma. 

But, is there something that could be done to prevent this — the school-to-prison pipeline — from happening in the first place?

According to Breanca Merritt, director of the Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy at IUPUI, the cycle must be addressed and broken long before children begin thinking about college. 

“Decades of research show the earlier you start kids on a particular path, the more likely it is that they go to college,” Merritt said. “We need to have conversations about alternatives, though.”

Merritt said if it is unlikely a student will go to college, there needs to be “realistic discussions” about alternatives, as well as careers and professions which don’t require a college degree. 

“Our current infrastructure doesn’t allow kids on the pipeline to get off that track,” Merritt said. “We need to adequately prepare kids for alternative options.”

The school-to-prison pipeline is a term describing a system that sees students from marginalized groups disproportionately become incarcerated as young adults. Often, the outcome of the pipeline, incarceration, is discussed more than the causes. Current school policies and practices set up children for trouble long before any crimes are committed. 

According to a study conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, Black students around the country are four times more likely than their white peers to be suspended. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, roughly 7% of Black students dropped out of high school in 2017, as opposed to 4% of white students.  

Colleen Curtin, the youth program coordinator for the Domestic Violence Network, said disproportionately punishing students of color perpetuates cycles of disenfranchisement.

“It used to be that when you got in trouble at school, you went to the office or saw the dean,” Curtin said in a previous interview with the Recorder. “Now, students are meeting with disciplinary officers. Those officers often feel compelled to treat these students like they were breaking the law on the street.”

This disparity can ultimately lead to students getting expelled or feeling disconnected from an academic setting. This ultimately leads to not only a lack of education, but idle time for high-risk activities and limited job opportunities, all of which are known causes of crime. 

Merritt noted Black students are affected by racism and a lack of opportunity regardless of their socioeconomic status. Further, students are often affected by events out of their control, including school and neighborhood policy decisions.

A lack of cultural understanding and biases held by teachers and school staff also play a large role in disproportionate disciplining and the pipeline, Merrit said.

“There are a lot of cultural disconnects between Black students and white teachers,” Merritt said. “… Black students tend to be a little more expressive, and a white teacher may look at that and say, ‘You’re out of line. You’re not behaving.’ The lack of awareness [among teachers] and a lack of opportunity are the roots of why the pipeline occurs.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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