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The School-to-Prison Pipeline, Part II: Youth in jail


David Wright is well aware of the negative outcomes associated with dropping out of school.

“I always had problems in school growing up,” Wright said. “Just acting out. Getting into arguments and fights with the teacher and everything.”

Wright attended Buffalo Public Schools during his childhood. An unstable home life carried over to school and by high school he was getting suspended multiple times each year.

Sam Radford, the president of the District Parent Coordinating Council of Buffalo, has been advocating for an alternative to suspensions in the city's schools.

“Now, they get the trauma. They get the suspension. They’ve got the behavior issue. But now, [if] they aren't getting the academic work, they fall further behind,” he said. “And now, because they’ve fallen further behind, they start to fail tests. And now, they’re failing tests their grade lowers. Now, their grade is lower. And at some point it’s just like, forget it,” Radford said.

While the Buffalo Public Schools' Code of Conduct states schools take a restorative practice approach to discipline, Radford believes a lack of training in the practice leaves teachers with only one option: removing a child from the classroom.

New York state Senator Velmanette Montgomery described the theory of how out-of-school suspensions can lead to incarceration on a recent episode of WCNY’s The Capitol Pressroom.

“We know that anytime young people are out of school, especially for any length of time, they are more likely to get in trouble with the police on the outside,” she said. “And therefore, that establishes the pipeline. So the school becomes the beginning of the pipeline to prison.”

Montgomery is the sponsor of a bill that would fundamentally change the system of punishment in public schools. It is in committee and was not voted on in the last legislative session.

Credit Thomas O'Neil-White
District Parent Coordinating Council President Sam Radford

Supports of suspension alternatives theorize because of zero-tolerance behavioral policies, school children are pushed out of school and into the criminal justice system. Students may have learning disabilities, trauma from home, or any number of problems that go untreated. Those problems often lead to school suspensions.

That has a detrimental effect on African American children, in particular. According to a report by The New York Equity Coalition, Black students in Buffalo Public Schools have the highest rate of suspensions in the state. It also states negative outcomes for students are associated with suspensions and other forms of exclusionary discipline.

For Wright, less time in school meant more time in the streets. After a year at the Stanley G. Falk School, a school for kids with special learning and behavioral needs, he dropped out for good. Needing money to help support his four kids, Wright’s next few years were spent running afoul of the law.

“Petty stuff. Possession of marijuana, possession of burglary tools,” he said. “Just certain things I would get a slap on the wrist.”

Credit Thomas O'Neil-White
Houghton College Student David Wright

But those petty crimes escalated and an illegal possession of a firearm charge, followed by an armed robbery conviction in 2007 put Wright behind bars for eight years.

Within a year of entering prison, he earned his GED. With his kids waiting for him on the outside, Wright knew he had to make the most of a bad situation.

“I thought about them every day,” Wright said. “But at that time it was about me and how am I going to survive in this prison cell, in these walls.”

Wright was released in 2015, but still has five years of post-release supervision. A few minor violations have landed Wright back in jail since then, but he is now in his first year at Houghton College Buffalo, studying business.

“This college is really doing a lot for me. The people in this college are doing a lot for me, already,” Wright said. “I’m only two weeks in and they’re breaking their backs to help me out.”

Wright believes if he had a similar support system in grade school, he would have avoided the trouble which befell him.

For supporters of a change in disciplinary practices in schools, Montgomery’s bill is important. She says the entire school community, from administrators down to the students, everyone needs to be on the same page.

“Part of what the legislation speaks to is establishing a uniform code of conduct so young people have a sense of what is expected of them,” she said.

The hope, she says, is that it will turn the school-to-prison pipeline into a pipeline of success.

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