In Part 1 of the “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” two officials from The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University outlined a serious problem in our educational system. Our schools are letting our kids down. Too many students are subjected to inadequate schooling, high stakes testing and “zero tolerance” policies that criminalize behavior that in the past may only have been seen as disruptive or problematic. These practices and policies have created a pipeline, pushing kids out of school through suspensions and expulsions and into jail. To make matters worse, there is a shocking racial bias inherent in this School-to-Prison Pipeline that is marginalizing people of color.

As the coordinator of The EdLaw Project in Roxbury, an advocacy group committed to protecting the rights of students, Jenny Chou tries to help the people who flow through this pipeline. Typically, her clients are middle and high school students of color from low-income Boston neighborhoods. They often have emotional or learning disabilities, are forced to deal with serious family and social issues, and are functioning far below their grade level.

“The common thread with my clients is that the system has failed them at some point,” said Chou. “How they feel about their self and the learning process gets skewed.” She explained that these kids feel stress and frustration in school, which manifests itself in behavioral problems. School officials dealing with these students issue three- and five-day suspensions for discretionary offenses, like disruptive behavior and excessive cutting of class, and the students fall further behind. Many students in Boston public schools are expelled for the catchall reason of “repeated and flagrant violations of the code.”

“The way that kids develop depends on the context of their experience,” said Josh Dohan, director of the Youth Advocacy Project in Roxbury, which provides legal representation for young people who are unable to pay for counsel in delinquency and youthful offender cases as well as disciplinary and administrative proceedings. “If they are able to succeed in school they feel confident, build critical self esteem, and see that their community has value. They see that they have a realistic future in their community.”

Unfortunately, inadequate schools with punitive policies frequently create the opposite effect. Dohan explained that school can become a humiliating experience for kids, and lacking adult coping skills, they become angry and frustrated. They look for ways to feel good, and begin to value not succeeding. Often these kids become drawn to other underachievers. Adolescence is a difficult time, when kids are impulsive, lack a sense of consequences and are extremely influenced by peer pressure. This increases risk-taking behavior, which can land them in the juvenile justice system.

“I’ve never met a kid who woke up one morning out of nowhere and said ‘I’m going to commit armed robbery today’,” explained Amy Chris, law enforcement liaison for Youth Opportunity Boston, a federally funded, job readiness program. “I have met kids who have been exposed to violence or really tough streets their entire lives, kids who come from broken homes with no positive role models … kids who have been asked to be adults far too early in their lives and cope the way that they can cope.”

One Man’s Journey Through the Pipeline

Dominic Hall has experienced this school-to-prison pipeline first hand. He grew up in Roxbury, raised by his grandparents; his father was in and out of jail, and he never really knew his mother. Hall had been a successful student, and his goal was to graduate, to be the first person in his family to earn a high school diploma. However, things changed in the eighth grade, when he was transferred to another school for getting into a fight. Hall struggled in this new school; he was behind the other students academically, and was uncomfortable in a new setting socially. He started to lose interest in school, and barely graduated from junior high.

When he began high school, placement testing landed him in a population of disruptive students that did not care about learning, what he called “a deadbeat atmosphere.” After the first semester, at age 15, he dropped out to work in contracting, and was paid under the table to paint apartments. “My priority became to make that money,” said Hall.

After seeing three of his friends killed in his Roxbury neighborhood, Hall began carrying a gun. He was eventually caught with it, and had to serve nine months locked up in Department of Youth Service (DYS) facilities. Hall got out of DYS, began working and participating in a GED program, and was staying out of trouble. Nevertheless, a few months later he was caught associating with some friends who were carrying guns. This was a violation of his DYS commitment, and he faced another 30 days in lock up. Hall felt betrayed by the system. “What do I have to do with those people having guns on their waist – I don’t have anything to do with that,” Hall told his DYS case tracker. “I just got out of jail for something I did. I’m not trying to go back on some bullcrap like that.”

So He ran away. He ran from his job, his GED program and the law. He spent 21 months in hiding, from age 16 to 18. For months Hall “did what he had to do” to earn money, and stayed with different friends around Boston. Eventually, he lived with his father, who got him a shipping and receiving job that also paid under the table.

Hall was finally caught on the DYS warrant. In addition, he was carrying a box-cutter (which he used for his job) and a bag of marijuana. He was locked up in DYS for three weeks, and faced criminal charges as an adult on drug and weapon charges.

He received probation for these charges, but later got caught for possession of marijuana on two other occasions. His next destination was South Bay House of Corrections, where he spent six months. Hall received no academic schooling during this period; however, he did spend time in solitary confinement.

Now Hall is 19 years old. He accepts responsibility for his actions, but wishes he had some structure, some help along the way, so that his adolescence did not have to be so hard. He now works with Youth Opportunity Boston, trying to learn job skills so that he can find employment, and is thinking about returning to either school or a GED program.

Sadly, Hall is not a unique case. At the Dropout Briefing for The Civil Rights Project, it was reported that in America’s 100 largest cities, over 58 percent of ninth grade students in high minority schools fail to graduate four years later. With over $20 million in budget cuts to the Massachusetts school system due in our next state budget, the School-to-Prison Pipeline isn’t likely to slow down any time soon.