Schools and Prisons: More Closely Connected Than We’d Like to Admit

By Stephanie A. Woodard. Stephanie is from Texas, U.S.A. and has worked at various levels of the education sector for the last 13 years. Please leave your thoughts and comments below.

I understand Victor Hugo’s idea that “He who opens a school door, closes a prison,” and I appreciate the perspective from which he speaks. When majority of the population struggled to maintain basic necessities of life because a select few held the power and wealth, he viewed education as a way to gain traction in order to cultivate equality and level the playing field. However, based on current national trends, opening a school hardly decreases the possibility of constructing a prison. On the contrary, it has been said that elementary discipline and achievement statistics are used to predict the number of prisons needed for the population in the future. Furthermore, the term “school to prison pipeline” is used to describe the notion that the punitive nature of school discipline sets students identified by certain demographics on a path to incarceration because it does not address the root causes for behavioral and academic shortcomings, but rather teaches them that negative behavior should be punishable by removing the offender from the general population without addressing the problem. 

Ideally, a school door opening while simultaneously closing a prison would be a place where students and school staff recognize the cognitive and socioemotional variables that students have and work to address and support them without reservation, discrimination, or inadequacy. All teachers would be equipped with the tools necessary to identify learning gaps and would implement effective practices to eliminate these gaps sustainably. Instead, current teachers struggle to understand which challenges students face, whilst grappling with the unrelenting pressure from administrators to help students perform at high levels on standardized tests. As a result, students struggle academically which, in some cases, translates to behavioral issues within the classroom because they have chosen to misbehave rather than run the risk of being identified as stupid or slow. In addition, students who are not challenged academically may misbehave out of boredom and lack of instructional rigor. 

When students’ academic needs are addressed, their behavioral disruptions decrease because they have confidence in the teacher’s ability to help them succeed in school. So instead of using student data from failing standardized tests to estimate the number of prison beds that may be necessary for future generations, the opening of school doors serve as a respite for students who deserve a risk-free opportunity to learn academic content and develop socioemotionally without being silently judged by private investors who want to estimate their future fortunes at the expense of school-aged children. 

Being able to fail and learn gives student a sense of comfort. This relative safety speaks to one of the basic tenants of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. People need to feel safe in order to take in new information, process details, and feel inspired. However, when students go to school and face out of school suspension, detention or isolation, and loss of basic privileges for any number of infractions, it removes them from the educational setting and increases their negative affect towards school. This idea is made more complex by the fact that these consequences are disproportionately rendered on minority children – especially African American and Hispanic males. 

Fortunately, schools have begun to implement restorative justice in lieu of repetitive school punishments where students miss out on valuable instructional time while failing to learn the skills needed to regulate their feelings and reactions and cultivate healthy interpersonal relationships. Restorative justice – stemmed from tribal circle conflict resolution practices – gives parties involved in a dispute the opportunity to discuss the reasons behind the conflict and determine ways to initiate and maintain a resolution to their disagreement. In doing so, school staff and students develop mutually beneficial relationships because mediating conflict has been shown to help reduce behavior-related absenteeism and positively bridges social gaps between students and adults and students and their peers. 

School doors should close prison doors as Victor Hugo said. It is important to note that not all schools fall into the trap of ignoring students’ core content needs so that they can prepare them for the testing that may ultimately foreshadow their future. Some schools are beacons that establish a culture and climate that is conducive to learning and growing both academically and socially. It is up to the community at large to be active contributors to the establishment and maintenance of the climate and culture of the schools around us through active participation in school activities and the political process. We must also be willing to challenge the status quo with regards to the equitable, fair treatment of all students when it comes to their behavior and academics. Finally, we must recognize that in order to disassociate schools and prisons, we have to insist that school administrators work diligently within their power to equip students with the social skills needed to navigate life beyond graduation so that the “school to prison pipeline” can be dismantled for all students.

8 comments on “Schools and Prisons: More Closely Connected Than We’d Like to Admit

  1. James Catchings on

    Well written and very much on point. The school to prison pipeline needs to be broken and attention returned to core subjects rather than standardized tests

    Reply
    • Stephanie Woodard on

      I agree. Sometimes we try so hard to be progressive that we overlook more effective ways to address major problems while still meeting students’ basic needs.

      Reply
  2. Tamika Prince on

    Insightful and very enlightening. In order to dismantle the school to prison pipeline, we must first understand it, and develop thoughtful strategies to counter it. This piece outlines the steps necessary to achieve this desperately needed task.

    Reply
    • Stephanie Woodard on

      I really wanted to address the issue without making it seem easy to overcome. Like you said, we have to seek to understand it so that we can adequately address problems systematically.

      Reply
  3. Rachel P on

    The school to prison pipeline is an unfortunate truth. Schools struggle with balancing the requirements to teach the standards, supporting social and emotional needs of students, and educating parents on the need for their support. There is a definite need for current staff to be trained in alternate methods of communication and discipline while still maintaining our core mandate to educate children.

    Reply
    • Stephanie Woodard on

      The pipeline is a multi-faceted issue that will take lots of education and philosophical re-alignment on behalf of administrators, school staff, parents, and students to change the mindset and practices to enact lasting results.

      Reply
  4. rachael patrick on

    This piece does a great job of breaking the ice on the the relationship between schools and prisons. It’s a very interesting perspective that previews many factors that aid in the multi-leveled links between adolescent behavioral issues and the struggle today’s educators have in understanding the source of these issues. It’s a very necessary conversation.

    Reply
    • Stephanie Woodard on

      I’m glad you affirm the thoughts presented here. I hope that many others take note and continue the important work of breaking the cycles that adversely affect our children.

      Reply

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