by Latoya Peterson
A first grade teacher in Paterson, New Jersey was recently put on administrative leave after she took to the internet to vent her frustrations about work. According to NBC New York, the teacher was suspended for “allegedly making Facebook comments that her six-year-old students are “future criminals” and referring to herself as a “warden,” according to school officials.”
Much of the handwringing over at Jezebel concerned the fate of the poor, poor teacher who probably just had a bad day. At Jezebel, Margaret Hartmann concludes her piece by saying:
It’s horrible to hear about an adult disrespecting the children in her care, but it also casts a bad light on teachers, who for the most part, got into the profession because they want to help children succeed. But that’s not news — that’s their job, and they do it every single day.
Are teachers definitely our undersung heroes? Yes. Do they often work long hours at thankless tasks in order to make their children’s lives better? Oh yes.
But do all teachers treat all children the same? No, no, no.
My radar pinged when I heard the term criminals employed, so I checked the demographics of Paterson. And my suspicions were borne out. According to Neighborhood Scout:
Paterson is a blue-collar town, with 35.4% of people working in blue-collar occupations, while the average in America is just 24.7%. Overall, Paterson is a city of sales and office workers, service providers, and production and manufacturing workers. There are especially a lot of people living in Paterson who work in office and administrative support jobs (18.20%), sales jobs (9.45%), and building maintenance and grounds keeping (6.25%).
The population of Paterson has a very low overall level of education: only 8.19% of people over 25 hold a 4-year college degree or higher.
The per capita income in Paterson in 2000 was $13,257, which is low income relative to New Jersey and the nation. This equates to an annual income of $53,028 for a family of four.
Paterson is an extremely ethnically-diverse city. The people who call Paterson home come from a variety of different races and ancestries. People of Hispanic or Latino origin are the most prevalent group in Paterson, accounting for 50.17% of the city’s residents (people of Hispanic or Latino origin can be of any race). The most prevalent race in Paterson is White, followed by Asian. Important ancestries of people in Paterson include Italian and Jamaican.
Paterson also has a high percentage of its population that was born in another country: 32.79%.
The most common language spoken in Paterson is Spanish. Some people also speak English.
But that’s just a coincidence, right?
Maybe this was just a bad day for this teacher – but the problem is that bad days in public serving positions can have huge, lingering consequences. And from what other administrators and school advocates are saying, the suspended teacher wasn’t the only one.
The New York Times provides more background information, explaining:
Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund, a nonprofit group that supports the local school community, said parents were angry about the teacher’s comments because anyone, including her own students, could have read the negative characterizations. She said it highlighted a lack of commitment by some teachers. “It’s horrible,” she said. “And unfortunately, I don’t think she’s the only teacher in Paterson who thinks that way.”
The Paterson district, with 28,000 students and 2,425 teachers, has long been one of New Jersey’s most troubled school systems; it was taken over by the state in 1991 because of fiscal mismanagement and poor academic performance.
And NBC NY quotes the Board of Education president who makes other saddening disclosures:
Paterson Board of Education President Thomas Best said the alleged comments were “disheartening and unacceptable.”
“I think it’s extremely disappointing that we have teachers in the classroom who are responsible for ensuring that their students have a bright future not even giving those children a chance,” he said.
It’s also not the first time a teacher has made such comments about students, he said.
“Overall we have a good teaching force, but I’ve heard comments like this before,” said Best. “It’s not on Facebook, but a lot of times the kids are referred to as ‘animals.’”
If we like to believe the tales that it just takes one teacher to make a difference, one shining light acting as a beacon out of the darkness for children struggling in school and in life, then why is it so hard to apply that logic to teachers who make negative comments? That their dismissal could act like a wrecking ball? That some teachers could negatively impact the lives of their students?
When you call a six-year old a “future criminal,” you are speeding that child along a path that is tough to escape – the school to prison pipeline. Impacting low income students of color the hardest, here’s how the pipeline manifests in different communities.
From the New York Civil Liberties Union:
The School to Prison Pipeline (STPP) is a nationwide system of local, state, and federal education and public safety policies that pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system. The system disproportionately targets youth of color and youth with disabilities. Inequities in areas such as school discipline, policing practices, high-stakes testing, wealth and healthcare distribution, school “grading” systems, and the prison-industrial complex all contribute to the Pipeline.
The STPP operates directly and indirectly. Directly, schools send their students into the Pipeline through zero tolerance policies, and involving the police in minor discipline incidents. All too often school rules are enforced through metal detectors, pat-downs and frisks, arrests, and referrals to the juvenile justice system. And schools pressured to raise graduation and testing numbers can sometimes artificially achieve this by pushing out low-performing students into GED programs and the juvenile justice system.
Indirectly, schools push students towards the criminal justice system by excluding them from the learning environment and isolating them from their peer groups through suspension, expulsion, ineffective retention policies, transfers, and high-stakes testing requirements. [...]
Suspensions indirectly feed the Pipeline
- A child who has been suspended is more likely to fall behind in school, be retained a grade, drop out of high school, commit a crime, and become incarcerated as an adult
- The best demographic indicators of children who will be suspended are not the type or severity of the crime, but the color of their skin, their special education status, the school they go to, and whether they have been suspended before
CRLA has identified educational disparities in our communities of service that affect Latino children and children of limited English proficiency, in particular. When school- and district-wide statistics relating to discipline, class assignment, dropout rate, graduation and enrollment in college are tracked by race, ethnicity and language it is clear that a disproportionate number of Latinos and limited English speaking children are not succeeding in California’s rural schools. Education experts and advocates throughout the country have acknowledged similar disparities affecting other children of color and children enrolled in special education programs and numerous studies have demonstrated a positive correlation between failure in school and a higher chance of ending up in the criminal justice system and called this trend the “school to prison pipeline.” CRLA is committed to addressing these disparities which result, not only in an increased chance of incarceration, but limit the work and life opportunities for these children.
From the LA Progressive, reporting on “Plugging Pasedena’s School-to-Prison Pipeline“:
“A black boy born in 2001 in America has a one in three chance of going to prison,” said moderator Saudeka Shabazz. “For a Latino boy, the odds are one in six.”
The school-to-prison pipeline is a set of policies combined with failing institutions that lead young men of color to prison or violent early death, according to Shabazz, a Berkeley grad who worked in gang intervention before becoming an outreach coordinator for the Children’s Defense Fund. She cited two early factors that put children into the pipeline:
- Health and mental health access: “Low birth weigh children often have learning delays or disabilities,” she said. “And poor mothers get less prenatal care, which leads to these problems.”
- Early childhood education: Children who get early education are higher achievers later on in life, according to Shabazz. “Teachers mark children early if they can’t keep up.”
Poverty works hand-in-glove with racial discrimination to put children of color behind the eight ball long before they reach high school.
From Reclaiming Futures’ report on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s publication “”Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis:”
[A]fter reviewing over 30 years of data from nearly 10,000 middle schools nationwide, it concludes that suspension is over-used as a disciplinary tool, and that youth of color — black males especially — are suspended far out of proportion to their numbers.
The authors looked specifically at types of suspensions where school staff could exercise discretion — incidents of fighting, disruptive behavior, and so on. They analyzed how many youth were suspended and broke down differences by race/ethnicity, and gender. What they learned was appalling: suspension rates have nearly doubled for students of all races/ethnicities since 1973; African American, Latino, and American Indian youth were suspended at higher rates than White youth; six percent of all black students were suspended in 1973, compared with 15 percent in 2006; and a breathtaking 28.3% of black males were suspended in 2006, compared with 10% of White males.
When researchers looked at the 18 largest urban school districts, they found that most “had several schools that suspended more than 50% of a given racial/gender group.” They even found schools that suspended more than half of their White and Hispanic female students. [...]
The disparate impact on youth of color, and black youth in particular, makes this a civil rights issue, the authors say. Here’s why:
Research on student behavior, race, and discipline has found no evidence that African-American over-representation in school suspension is due to higher rates of misbehavior (McCarthy and Hoge, 1987; McFadden et al., 1992; Shaw & Braden, 1990; Wu et al., 1982). Skiba et al. (2002) reviewed racial and gender disparities in school punishments in an urban setting, and found that White students were referred to the office significantly more frequently for offenses that appear more capable of objective documentation (e.g., smoking, vandalism, leaving without permission, and obscene language). African-American students, however, were referred more often for disrespect, excessive noise, threat, and loitering - behaviors that would seem to require more subjective judgment on the part of the referring agent. In short, there is no evidence that racial disparities in school discipline can be explained through higher rates of disruption among African-American students.
And from Fairtest.org’s position paper on No Child Left Behind and The School to Prison Pipeline, released March 2011:
In the nine years since Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), startling growth has occurred in what is often described as the “School-to-Prison Pipeline”1 – the use of educational policies and practices that have the effect of pushing students, especially students of color and students with disabilities, out of schools and toward the juve- nile and criminal justice systems. This phenomenon has proved incredibly damaging to students, families, and communities. It has also proved tremendously costly, not only in terms of lost human potential but also in dollars, as states struggle with the soaring costs of police, courts, and incarceration amidst continuing economic difficulties. Yet far too little emphasis is being placed upon the pipeline crisis, its causes, and its consequences within most of the discussion around federal education policy and the reauthorization of the ESEA.
The swelling of the pipeline has many causes. But as Congress works to reauthorize the ESEA, it is essential to examine how NCLB itself has contributed to the pipeline phenomenon. Congress designed NCLB to hold schools accountable for student performance, correctly paying specific attention to differentials in outcomes by race, socioeconomic status, disability, and English language proficiency. However, the law focused its accountability frame- work almost exclusively on students’ standardized test performance, placed punitive sanctions on struggling schools without providing enough tools to actually improve their performance, and failed to address significant funding and resource disparities among our nation’s schools. As a result, NCLB had the effect of encouraging low-performing schools to meet benchmarks by narrowing curriculum and instruction and de-prioritizing the educational opportunities of many students. Indeed, No Child Left Behind’s “get-tough” approach to accountability has led to more students being left even further behind, thus feeding the dropout crisis and the School-to-Prison Pipeline. [...]
The sharp rise in the use of all of these practices in communities across the country over the last decade represents a prioritization of swift and severe punishment of students over the thoughtful consideration of how to better meet their educational needs, such as through academic and disciplinary interventions, counseling services, health services, special education programs, and other “wraparound” services. As a result, huge numbers of students have been put on a path to academic failure that is difficult to interrupt and often has devastating long-term consequences.
Teachers are often unjustly blamed for the failures of an overburdened and underfunded system. However, let’s not pretend that all students are on a level and equal playing field, or that racism and perception of a student’s background can’t play a role in how we describe, view, or treat these kids. First graders are six years old. Six. Years. Old. No one’s life is set in stone at any age, much less the tender childhood years. So let’s take a second to think of the children before immediately jumping to the teacher’s defense.
(Image Credit: The Youth Justice Coalition via Suspension Stories)