Why am I not a school-to-prison pipeline statistic?
I found my refuge in school. I was provided opportunity, exposed to rigorous coursework, and felt the support of teachers and administrators. Yet, my experience was far different than many of my friends and peers. I was invited to enroll in AP classes like calculus. I had teachers in my gifted classes telling me that I could be somebody. They encouraged me to express myself. And when I did get in trouble, the language was far different than what many of my friends heard. After I got in a fight once, I recall hearing something like, “You’re such a good kid. Why are you fighting?”
My friends and I might have lived in the same neighborhood, attended the same schools, but our realities inside the school walls were very different. I got in trouble just like my friends and made some of the same bad decisions as people who are now incarcerated or convicted felons. By all generalized accounts I was a “troubled” student. As a high school teacher in Duplin County, I was always mindful of my experiences as a kid and it helped me connect with many students who would have previously been considered “troubled” as well.
No child is unreachable. With a focus on healing, not punishment, I believe we can reach far more young people and empower them to achieve at the highest levels. These interventions hold the potential to reduce suspensions and incarceration.
Today, as a student at Campbell Law School and a member of the clinical program, I work with young people from juvenile courts and local school systems to advance healing. We bring victims and offenders together using restorative practices to de-escalate conflicts while keeping students in high-quality learning environments. We also work with students and educators alike to advance a dialogue about racial biases and how to recognize them in the school setting.
For years, harsh school policies, particularly a reliance on suspensions, once believed to solve one problem has incited a far worse problem. Suspending students is not the answer. We know from data that students who are suspended are more likely to drop out of school, enter the juvenile justice system, or find themselves involved in criminal activity. Our current overreliance on punishment costs taxpayers as much as $35 billion in lost taxpayer revenue, including the cost of keeping individuals in prison and paying for health care.
These policies have also historically impacted kids from disadvantaged and minority backgrounds at higher rates—the very students who often need time in the classroom most. Black students, for example, are nearly twice as likely as white students to be expelled from school without a secondary education option, according to recent civil rights data from the Department of Education.
This data is alarming to read. However, my experiences growing up poor and black in a low-income neighborhood in Greensboro, North Carolina and my experience working with students in classrooms gives me hope we can curb the school-to-prison-pipeline in North Carolina and across our nation.
After graduating from UNC Charlotte, I joined Teach For America and taught high school social studies at Rose Hill Magnolia Elementary School. My time leading a classroom confirmed much of what I felt as a young boy attending school in Greensboro: all students want to succeed but too many kids, particularly minorities and those living in poverty, are conditioned to believe they can’t achieve at the highest levels.
In the years ahead, to best meet the needs of our students, I’m hopeful we continue to promote equity and opportunity for all the students and families in our communities, build stronger alliances with law enforcement and the justice system, and expand our partnerships and learning with in-school resource officers to further address the behaviors that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline.
I am a firm believer in a shared humanity. While there is oppression and discrimination in this life, I find it hard to hate. There are no solutions rooted in hate. When we approach disagreement in our schools or the broader debates regarding equity, safety, and necessary supports for our students, I hope we can all be more mindful of our shared humanity.