Educate, Don’t Incarcerate.

About 20% of Virginians are black. But 60% of its state prison inmates are black.

Black people don’t behave a certain way because of the color of their skin. If the way justice is administered in Virginia suggests that, then the system needs fixing.

The injustice of that outcome starts early. Commonwealth of Virginia has the distinction of referring nation’s highest ratio of young people of color into the criminal justice system.  16 of every 1000 Virginian young African-Americans end up there. That’s what “school-to-prison pipeline” means.

As a human being, I cannot abide a justice system that streams a record number of young people, and a disproportionate number of children, of color into prison.

local public meeting opened my eyes to the “school-to-prison pipeline.” It’s one more face of racism in America. It shows up in my header graphic for this post, adapted/expanded by Ellen Tuzzolo from an original graphic published by the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence, with a similar rank of “social acceptability” as “Police murdering People of Color” and “Confederate Flags.”

In Virginia, African American students get suspended at 3.6 times the rate of white students. They make up 23% of the student population but account for 58 percent of short term suspensions, 60 percent of long term suspensions, and 55 percent of expulsions.

Why does that happen and how did it start? If you have had kids in school in the United States over the past 25 years you might know this: in many communities School Resource Officers (SRO) are on-site in the schools as employees of local law enforcement agencies. They are under the direction to use police procedure to enforce state and local law.  It was news to me…and so were the consequences.

In the early 1990’s, many communities started to place police officers in the schools to increase safety. But their roles expanded over time. Research showed that the presence of police in a school resulted in a greater number of young people being arrested for minor offenses. What in my day might have been a “mild scuffle” with the vice-principal could be today’s “assaulting a police officer,” which a law enforcement official must report as a crime.

Childhood trauma is often a cause of serious childhood misconduct. Black and Latino students are at a greater risk than white students of having experienced childhood trauma. Youth of color are also more likely than white youth to attend schools with police officers. This means that students of color, who may have greater need for mental health care than white youth, are instead dealt with by police officers who are untrained or insufficiently trained in responding to trauma.

~ 9/7/16


Without adequate training of adult teachers and leaders, and without detailed briefings for parents and students about the rules of engagement, even simple everyday interactions have the potential to escalate easily into disciplinary action and suspensions.

Suspensions mean missed classes. Missed classes bring students stigma and social isolation and put them on a path of failing grades that can be difficult to reverse.

Kids make mistakes. Repeatedly. They need more than once chance to get it right, and the criminal justice system often doesn’t give them that chance.

Once the get into the criminal justice system, these young people are imprisoned at an annual cost of $150,000 per person. That’s more than enough money to send that same person to college for four years!

Both the school board member and the Assistant Public Defender who spoke at the meeting agreed that the schools need more resources and better training for teachers and school resource officers, for starters. That’s yet another expenditure I’d support before putting kids in prison.

Imagine what kind of change we would see in communities if even half of those kids got the resources and opportunity to overcome obstacles they were born into, and the support to defy those disadvantages to see and make choices that would get them to college instead of to prison.

As a human being as well as a taxpayer, I’d rather my money send kids to college than send them to prison.

This isn’t just a problem in Virginia. It’s certainly an issue that all voters (but most immediately those in Virginia, which holds gubernatorial elections on November 7th, 2017) should know how candidates will address before they head to the polls.

And it’s an issue that we should all care about as human beings.

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