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Ask Dr. Lynch: Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

EducationWorld Q&A columnist Dr. Matthew Lynch is a department chair and an associate professor of education at Langston University. He has researched topics related to educational policy, school leadership and education reform, particularly in the urban learning environment, and he is interested in developing collaborative enterprises that move the field of education forward. Visit his Web site for more information. Read all of his columns here, and be sure to submit your own question.

Dr. Matthew Lynch

This week, reader Nate T. asks:

Dr. Lynch, I am a youth counselor in Philadelphia, PA. Every day I witness the public school system fail our children. The end result is that many of them drop out and end up in prison. What can activists like me do to end the school-to-prison pipeline?


Nate, thank you for sending this question my way. Though all people have genetic predispositions, during the formative years, it is ultimately the environment that shapes lives. Some of that comes from home environment, and the rest comes from society. Our nation’s public schools play an integral role in fostering talents, but also in building our children’s internal worth.

When one student is causing a classroom disruption, the traditional way to address the issue has been removal—whether the removal is for five minutes, five days or permanently. Separating the “good” students and the “bad” ones has always seemed the fair, judicious approach. On an individual level, this form of discipline may seem necessary to preserve the educational experience for others. If all children came from homes that implemented a cause-and-effect approach to discipline, this might be the right answer. Unfortunately, an increasing number of students come from broken homes, or ones where parents have not the desire or time to discipline. For these students, removal from education is simply another form of abandonment and leads to the phenomenon called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Children are a product of their environments as well as the expectations placed on them. Parents on a first-name basis with law enforcement officials certainly influence the behavior of their children, but school authorities with preconceived negative associations also create an expectation of failure. Increasingly, educators are learning how to recognize the signs of disabilities such as ADHD and dyslexia. But what about the indirect impact that poverty, abuse, neglect or simply living in the wrong neighborhood have on a student’s ability to learn? Where are the intervention programs that keep these students on track without removing them from the school setting? 

The term “zero tolerance” may sound like the best way to handle all offenses in public schools, but it really does a disservice to students. Not every infraction is a black-and-white issue, and not every misstep by a student is a result of direct defiance. Often students with legitimate learning disabilities or social impairment are labeled as “disruptions” and removed from classroom settings under the guise of preserving the learning experience for other, “better” students. I suppose there is an argument to be made for protecting straight-and-narrow students from the sins of others, but at what cost? Schools are the first line of defense against this early form of pigeonholing, but the community also needs to embrace the concept. Students with discipline problems need customized learning experiences to succeed academically in the years ahead.


About Dr. Lynch

Dr. Matthew Lynch is a Chair and Associate Professor of Education at Langston University and a blogger for the Huffington Post. Dr. Lynch also is the author of the newly released book It’s Time for a Change: School Reform for the Next Decade and A Guide to Effective School Leadership Theories. Please visit his Web site for more information.

If you have a question for “Ask Dr. Lynch,” submit it here. Topics can be anything education-related, from classroom management to differentiated instruction.

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