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Panelists discuss dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline

| Wednesday, January 25, 2023

In 2010, more than 3 million students were suspended from school. Local leaders who spoke at Notre Dame on Tuesday evening said such disciplinary measures often further entrench the school-to-prison pipeline.

“You can’t understand the American system of mass incarceration without understanding the American education system,” Justin McDevitt, the assistant regional director for alumni and reentry services with Notre Dame Programs for Education in Prison (NDPEP), said.

The Tuesday evening panel discussion focused on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline and was moderated by McDevitt. The event was hosted by Student Government and co-sponsored by the Alliance for Catholic Education, the Center for Social Concerns and the Education, Schooling & Society Program.

Fitting within the larger context of Walk the Walk Week, programming that focuses on issues of justice and equity across campus and the country, the discussion centered around actions currently being taken to dismantle the pipeline and how the Notre Dame community can promote active change.

Canneth Lee, a South Bend councilman and pastor, said that “the pipeline refers to the policies and practices that disproportionately affect students of color and that push students of color from school to the criminal justice system.” He also said the pipeline disproportionately affects students with disabilities and students from low-income families. 

Maria McKenna, a professor in both Africana Studies and the Education, Schooling & Society Program, explained that education has been politicized since the beginning of public education in the mid-1800s. She pointed to literacy tests, school segregation and poll taxes, citing them examples of how Black people have been historically excluded from education.

McKenna said that this marginalization continues today.

“We have continued to marginalize, to criminalize and to exclude people of color from the American education system and this is how we ended up with a system of punishment and reward and absolute black-and-white ideas about what is acceptable behavior in schools,” she said.

Kareemah Fowler, the chief financial officer for the South Bend Community School Corporation (SBCSC), said many students who act out in school are suffering from unresolved trauma and a lack of positive reinforcement at home. 

These students come to school needing more help and support, but the school isn’t able to provide it, she explained.

“We respond with discipline instead of with support because that’s often cheaper and easier in some ways,” McDevitt said. 

As a result of disciplinary policies, McDevitt said students are suspended or sent home, rather than being at school where they can learn and be loved by meaningful mentors and role models.

“We must work to reduce punitive measures, such as suspensions and expulsions, and instead focus on restorative justice practices that help students learn from their mistakes and make amends,” Lee said. 

Fowler discussed the importance of aligning the South Bend school’s strategic plan with policies to dismantle the pipeline. In her position as CFO, she worked to pass a tax referendum to provide students who need extra support and resources. She said she also worked to supply teachers and staff with resources to deal with these issues and learn how to implement restorative justice practices. 

Fowler said schools and families can’t face these issues alone.

“One of the pillars of the strategic plan was community partners because we know that these are systemic issues,” she said. 

Support for communities happens at the local level, McKenna said. That support could take the shape of mentoring a child, volunteering at the polls for local elections or supporting a community racial or social justice group, she added.

“Everyone [has] a role to play in dismantling what we think of as the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said.

Contact Caroline Collins at [email protected]

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About Caroline Collins

Caroline is a sophomore environmental science major and journalism, ethics & democracy minor. She loves running, listening to Taylor Swift and not using the Oxford comma.

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