The Criminalization of Youth of Color in School

ILLUSTRATION BY CHRIS BUZELL

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to work for a 7-week child literacy program at a public school in Harlem. The program believes that through their intensive literacy curriculum, black and brown children may have a chance to increase their reading level before the next school year. When children have confidence about what they are learning, or their individual academic development, they stand a higher chance of improving their capacity to learn and that can reflect in their grades and in their behavior.

During my time teaching, I began to notice there were several students who were constantly disrupting class with their random outbursts towards me and towards other students. These outbursts would sometimes lead to physical altercations and occasionally police interference. After spending one-on-one time with a few students, it came to my attention that most of these kids were experiencing traumatic situations in their everyday lives. For example, I had one student who constantly would get in physical altercations that would interrupt class. During our private discussions, I found out that she did not know how to read and was afraid of being bullied. I also found out that on several occasions her and her mom would have to stay in the shelter nearby because they had been evicted from their apartment. The young student also told me that twice on her way to being dropped off her mother would get approached and threatened by people on the street who she did not know. The sad reality is that many children like her are quickly dismissed from the classroom and handed over to the authorities when altercations occur, without any effort being made to understand the struggles that may be affecting that student.

Throughout the last few decades, increased school shootings have created a demand for stricter policies within school systems, some of which are to include an increase in police presence at school in order to deter violence. Policies have also been put in place to prevent negative and violent behavior from happening. However, there has been no evidence to support that these policies have made schools safer, but they have perpetuated a criminalization of black and brown students in the school-to-prison pipeline. In a recent report by the Center for Popular Democracy, New York City spends $746 million dollars each year to support the school-to-prison pipeline. These costs include the salaries of officers in the school, cameras, metal detectors and court expenses after arrests have been made at school. Intentional efforts are being made in order to make sure that reinforcement is available in case of any criminal activities may or may not occur. The problem is this systemic assumption that kids need this type of policing while at school, especially for small episodes of classroom “misbehavior” that can potentially lead to immediate interactions within the criminal justice system.

Children of color between the ages of 10 and 17 constitute 16% of the overall child population but 34% of those arrested, 38% of those adjudicated, and 68% of those in residential placements. The black and brown youth who become involved with the criminal justice system have to face compound consequences which can include a disruption of their education, a potential for school dropout and increased recidivism. All of these factors contribute to the perpetuation of continued trauma and racism, especially within communities of color who are poor.

Looking at students like the young girl makes me emotional about her situation and frustrated with the education system that is failing her. There is no reason why at seven years old she did not even know how to spell her name. Several students in the program were marked as dangerous and disruptive and the principal, who was white, said that some of the students “should just stick to basketball because they won’t make it through school.” Comments similar to this were made by other people in positions of power at the school who have the ability to get these students involved with the criminal justice system due to their own racist beliefs.

There is so much work that needs to be done within our education system. Funding that is being thrown at increased policing at schools should be redirected towards restorative efforts that create an inclusive environment of healing and socioemotional support for students within the classroom, and especially for black and brown students. Teachers, principals and other people in power within the school system should develop more plans of action on how to resolve nonviolent behavior themselves, without involving law officers or extreme discipline measures, like expulsion. These efforts are just a few of several steps in improving cultural sensitivity, eliminating biases, and creating healing alternatives that keep children in the classroom and out of prison.