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Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline One Child at a Time

This post is written by NCTE member, Shauna Mayo. 

Dr MayoI have been watching news stories about the number of students in Virginia public schools that are referred to law enforcement and how the Commonwealth of Virginia compares with other states in this regard. Recent statistics reflect that Virginia leads the nation with a rate of 15.8% of students being referred to law enforcement, compared to only 5.8% of all students in the United States. I am disheartened by these numbers and dismayed that Virginia leads the nation in this practice designed to deter inappropriate behavior in schools. As I continue to listen to the stories and examine the data, I also ask myself the important question of what can be done to modify student behavior that often contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline.

As an educator, every day I see my former elementary students who have become a part of the juvenile correction system. These are intelligent students who, with the right supports, had and still can have some of the brightest futures of any children. However, for many of them, once they transition into middle and high schools, more freedoms bring opportunities to make poor decisions. Many of these students do live in poverty and for them, survival often outweighs school. However, there has to be a shift in this type of fixed-mindset thinking. We have to show students that a good education can break cyclic trends that often lead to them becoming a part of the judicial system.

Regardless of the statistics, I believe that there is hope for our youth. I believe that there is a solution to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, but admittedly, the task will be arduous. However, I believe that anything worthwhile is worth working for, and nothing is worth more than the future of our youth. We have to make sure that our youth become adults who want to make a difference in the lives of others because someone made a difference in their lives. In other words, we want them to “pay it forward.”

I know data may tell one story, but all students are more than numbers. I know all students can learn when presented with authentic learning opportunities. As educators, we must have those difficult conversations that will help us increase student engagement and authentic learning while reducing inappropriate behavior that leads to students becoming a part of the judicial system. When we keep our students in school and help them realize their potential, we are indeed changing not only Virginia’s statistics, but also the statistics for all students around the nation.

Shauna Mayo is an adjunct professor in the Department of Education at Strayer University, where she teaches courses in educational diversity and education law. She also works in a public school system in Virginia. Her research focuses on ways to prevent bullying and improve student social skills. She published the article “Effects of Elementary School Students’ Gender and Grade Level on Bullying” with Glenn Koonce in the American International Journal of Social Science.