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Children’s Defense Fund Shows us Hard Truths

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Just in time for the new year comes a report from the Children's
Defense Fund, detailing the actual conditions of the children of our
nation. For many, the conditions are dismal. One in six live in
poverty -- that's more than 13 million children across the United
States. Almost half that number live in extreme poverty, and nine
million lack health insurance. We can be certain these numbers are
escalating as the recession intensifies -- stealing away jobs and
straining philanthropy.

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Our nation leads the world in a number of unenviable categories. We are first in the number incarcerated, first in weapons production and exports, and last in investing in child poverty. The United States and Somalia (which has no legally constituted government) are the only two United Nations members that have failed to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Children’s Defense Fund’s president, Marion Wright Edelman writes,

A cradle to prison pipeline crisis is fueling a massive and costly prison system that is becoming the new American apartheid. It is draining tens of billions of dollars from crucial health and education investments all children need to get into a pipeline to college and productive work. Poverty and continuing racial disparities in all child serving systems are sentencing countless children to dead-end lives. That a Black boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime and a Latino boy has a 1 in 6 chance is a personal tragedy and national catastrophe. We can and must change these horrifying outcomes. If we can bail out Wall Street bankers who have brought our economy to its knees, we can rescue our children from hopelessness, despair, sickness, illiteracy and preventable poverty.

In my visit to the CDF website, I found an awareness campaign that struck a powerful chord with me, focused on the “Cradle to Prison pipeline.” Julia Cass and Connie Curry carried out an in-depth investigation of this phenomenon in Ohio and Mississippi in 2003 and 2004, and drew these conclusions, all highly relevant to educators:

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• Many of the young men and women in the juvenile justice system never were in the pipeline to college. They were not derailed from the right track; they never got on it.
• Intervention is important in early childhood while the brain is still growing and behavioral patterns are being formed. A lot of a child’s future life story is written by the third or fourth grade.
• Many Black and Latino children are behind when they enter kindergarten.
• Mental health and emotional problems are a major gateway to the Prison
Pipeline. When school, family or community resources aren’t there to help, these children are dumped into the juvenile justice system.
• Children who have not learned self-control by the age of eight are at high risk
of delinquency and incarceration. Teachers know who they are, but there is no
structure for getting help. These children are more likely to be suspended.
• Children know by about the third grade whether they are part of the mainstream
or of another, more marginal world. Those who are routinely disciplined or
struggle with schoolwork mentally drop out at this point. They actually leave
school in the ninth grade, the major exit ramp from the path to college. The
ninth grade is also the school year when many youth commit their first criminal
offenses.
• The behavior teachers see as disruptive and disrespectful may be difficult to
manage but knowing the children makes their behavior understandable and
reveals other ways to work with them.
• Truancy—being out of school—is the number one predictor of delinquency.
When teenagers drop out of school, they put themselves at the bottom of the
economic ladder, probably for life, and are much more likely to be detained and
incarcerated, especially if they hang out on risk saturated street corners.
• Zero tolerance school discipline policies don’t improve school achievement or
teach a lesson to the offender; they contribute to the Pipeline to Prison by pushing
students out of school.
• School systems are criminalizing school misbehavior, with police officers stationed
at schools arresting students for behavior that used to be handled in the principal’s
office.
• America’s deeply ingrained philosophy that just getting tough is the way to stop
misbehavior rarely works, especially with children. The political pendulum
swings from more to less punishment but the paradigm itself is worn out and a
new one has not taken its place.
• Despite the image of super predators and dangerous hallways, most students
suspended from school and most juveniles in detention did not commit violent
offenses or put the safety of others at risk.
• Anger runs like a river through the stories of virtually all the children profiled and
of many of their parents.
• Teenagers will seek respect wherever they can find it.
• Young people may be serviced and diagnosed but they also need real relationships,
not just required ones. Thousands of children grow up without a single
adult, apart from a mother or grandmother, taking a sustained interest in guiding
them and sharing their joys and sorrows.

In Oakland, where I work with teachers, far too many youth are caught up in the cycle of violence described so well here. Far too many are incarcerated rather than enrolled in college. I read this articletoday in the New York Times that describes a town in Rhode Island dominated by a large prison. Once the prisons reach a critical mass, they become an economic engine of their own. The prison guards and private prison owners lobby for expansion of the prisons, and precious resources go in that direction instead of towards the social and educational programs that might prevent incarceration in the first place. If we are to change priorities, we need to articulate a clear alternative to these policies, and catalyze popular sentiment to provide support for alternatives.

Do you see the cradle to prison pipeline in your community? Are there fresh ideas out there for diverting energy in a more positive direction?

4 Comments

I am a long time admirer of Marian Wright Edleman (first black woman to pass the bar here in MS, and a fighter in the civil rights movement). The work of CDF is a continuation of that tradition with her.

The cradle-to-prison pipeline campaign is especially critical work right now. My husband and I founded a non-profit organization dedicated to youth leadership/character development 20 years ago, here in the MS Delta. We have seen the effects of this pipeline everyday on the lives of hundreds of children. I find the last statement particularly condemning of our society--that so many young people grow up without any adults expressing real interest in them or their futures. This society gives a lot of lip service to how important our children are...but it's mostly a selfish focus on "my" children, not "our" children.

Teachers should be in the forefront of changing this situation. (PS-check out CDF Freedom School project; I've participated in it and it's great!)

Anthony:

Thank you so much for this post. The Cradle to Prison Pipeline puts facts and figures behind what I have experienced in community work and as a parent in my own midwestern urban community. In my state the current budget status threatens to reduce the prison system to what they have called nothing more than "lock and feed."

I have recently been reading Peter Senge on "learning organizations" (that would be organizations that learn--not institutions of education). He points out that one of the "learning disabilities" that frequently stands as a barrier is the tendancy of workers to identify with their jobs. He cites the difficulty in retraining laid-off industrial workers. If one has defined themself, for instance, as a lathe operator (or a teacher), it is difficult, assuming one is doing their own job adequately, to look beyond the job to the system of which it is a part. This can result in a lack of cohesion, silos that work against one another, an inability to see a big picture.

As a social worker and a parent, I have had an excellent view of the pipeline. I have had countless futile conversations with teachers about why getting the "bad kids" out of the classroom isn't solving anyone's problems--and in the end creates bigger ones. I would also suggest that, as bad as the economic situation has become, we have a new opportunity to overcome our professional limitations. In my town, the parks and rec department has just had to close a number of rec centers--the places where a lot of young people went after school, and which provided supplemental physical education, as well as homework help and arts exposure. The lack of dollars to maintain segmented systems to pick up on aspects of the needs of children is real. The opportunity presented is to find ways that these formerly disparate and uncoordinated systems can combine and work together. If we know that a truancy (or reading or behavior) problem at age 8 signals the likelihood of a prison problem at age 18--and do not act to solve the problem--we are opting for a very expensive commitment (even at the lock and feed level).

Perhaps if we could succeed in moving teachers to an understanding of themselves as a part of a system of education, they could initiate some of the connections that are required to resolve issues at age 8. This might mean better coordination with child protective services (and convincing them that a preventive role is cost-effective for them) and mental health workers. It might mean that teachers have to learn different ways of responding to problems when they occur in a classroom--instead of believing that there should be someone "out there" to fix kids and return them. Maybe along with vision and dental screenings we start to include other kinds of screening to identify kids with behavioral/mental health issues in a system (rather than episodic) way and to bring in (rather than refer to) professionals to work with them.

Maybe it means reviewing the kinds of work done by school counselors and social workers and eliminating clerical tasks that get assigned to them because of perceived availability--rather than because of their expertise.

I think that one of the hardest things for teachers to accept about the prison pipeline is that they are a part of it. That isn't the job they signed up for, it isn't who they intend to be--but to the extent that they go along without examining their role and how they might change it--they are a part of something that most of them really disagree with.

Margo,
I think you are right that teachers have a hard time seeing themselves as part of this system. We tend to look at our classrooms as an isolated unit, and the "problem child" as one who is robbing the opportunities to learn from those making better choices. And part of the reason this is so is that the other services you describe are often weak and ineffective, so the teacher may feel overburdened, and unable to effectively respond to the overwhelming needs they are confronted with. I think when support and connections to community resources are strengthened, that can help teachers to see themselves as part of bigger system -- hopefully one that is helping children succeed rather than stigmatizing them. I think there is hope that change is coming.

By the way, Virginia Senator Jim Webb has made a call for big reforms in the way we approach incarceration -- see here. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/01/opinion/01thu3.html

"...the other services you describe are often weak and ineffective, so the teacher may feel overburdened, and unable to effectively respond to the overwhelming needs they are confronted with."

Some might say that this is the pot calling the kettle black :)

But what would it take for teachers to see themselves as having a legitimate role in fostering those stronger relationships with others in the system/non-system?

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