Can We Keep Our Children In School … And Out of Jail?

That question captivated some 200 attendees at the Artists’ Collective Tuesday, when Hartford Board of Education Member (and City Director of the Department of Families, Children, Youth, and Recreation) Kim Oliver convened a discussion of the fabled cradle-to-prison pipeline.  Turns out, it’s no fable.  More Black and Brown boys (and girls) disproportionately go down this damaging road.  Why is it that our culture tends to exact vengeance against, rather than mercy toward, the young people who are most in need of support; who most severely suffer from the intergenerational indignities of poverty?

 

That’s a data question.  On Tuesday, Ms. Oliver’s co-hosts, Mayor Luke Bronin and Hartford Schools’ Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, felt the gravity of the question.  “Disrupting the Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline”, as a program, gathered many very thoughtful points (and people together to discuss them).

 

The information pipeline about the cradle-to prison pipeline came from Arnold Chandler and Tia Martinez, principals at the Forward Change organization in California.

 

Here’s a brief recap of what they, and the Hartford audience members, had to say:

 

  • Why focus on Boys and Men of Color? Forward Change Consulting Co-Founder Chandler answered this pretty directly: Black males are at the center of a gender-specific cycle of intergenerational disadvantage that expands outwards to other demographics (females and families of color; schools/communities of low-income minority concentrations).
  • Gender Disparities Matter…but Problems Persist All Around. Although the focus is on Black boys, Black girls doing better doesn’t mean they’re doing well.  Moreover, the lives of males and females are inextricably intertwined.  Disadvantage operates in gender-specific ways.
  • A Vicious Cycle of Male Intergenerational Disadvantage Persists. Phenomena in this cycle move impacted populations between (1) Mass Incarceration and the War on Drugs; (2) Declining Employment and Earnings; (3) Stagnant Educational Attainment; and (4) Growth of Disadvantaged Families. The cycles compound across generations as educational attainment from one generation shapes the employment prospects of the next one.
  • Black Male Disadvantage Impacts the Full Cradle-to-Career Pipeline. Jobless rates among Black males exceed those of White males by 25 percentage points and Latino males by 18 percentage points.
  • Impact of Technological Change. The effects on Black males (and populations with high concentrations of minority and/or low-income families) are real – but not insurmountable with intentional and aligned actions: Off-shoring of middle-skill jobs and import competition (China); Decline in Unions; Suburbanization of low-skilled jobs (“spatial mismatch”); Legal discrimination against felons; Illegal Employment Discrimination in Low-Wage Jobs, to name some examples.
  • Time to Wake Up. When Forward Change Consulting Co-Founder Arnold Chandler advised that data show “fathers are transferring the effects of incarceration to their kids inter-generationally,” it was a more than a wake-up call – it was a slap in the face.  “Before you start a family, think of what the ramifications are,” he reflected.  “Not many people are making planned births at age 17 or 18 – but 10 years after, it can ruin lives.”
  • Be Unorthodox. Attendees referenced the value of single-gender schools, especially for young men, so as to explore masculinity and to help pay it forward to others.  New State Senator Douglas McCrory recalled his proposal for such academies, one of the best ideas he ever had, he said.
  • Don’t Replicate Bad Practice. School regimens (such as those requiring children to put their shoulders on the wall and march silently to lunch) can reinforce prison behaviors; not a good idea.
  • Over-Incarceration Is Not Justice. The “three strikes you’re out” approach has not worked; overly punitive reactions backfire.  The data as to the proportions of Black and Brown men in prison – and their likelihood of ending up there – suggest that our culture is more vindictive than attentive to the long-term future of our youth.
  • What Can Be Done? As Arnold Chandler put it, one solution could be piloting a career-to-success model among 50 families – for custom planning from cradle to career – so those who are served – and serving – can be followed and supported.
  • Inspiration from Devastation. Tia Martinez’s father was a crack addict for 20 years.  As such, she became the “mom” of the house at age 16, pouring her life into her five-year-old sister.  Her sibling’s early success gave her a sense of accomplishment – but that ended when her sister killed herself at age 25.  “That crushed me,” Ms. Martinez said – but it also inspired her to try and understand the system that produced her sister’s tragedy.  “I thought she benefited from the idea that you can just power through.”  That became disproven.  Ms. Martinez’s full Prezi presentation is here.
  • “You need somebody who’s making money, to make relationships stable”.  Jobs today pay horribly and saddle workers with awful conditions, including inflexibility in the form of “parent conferences be damned,” Ms. Martinez said, even as felony charges are expanded and un- and under-employed workers come to dead ends.
  • Not Just White, but Black Flight. As a Black middle class was able to leave the worst neighborhoods and begin to create Black suburbs outside cities, that pattern left poor Black and Brown families sequestered behind, leading to a cadre of troubled youth, subject to expulsion from school and yes, imprisonment.
  • Progress is Masked. While children can grow from Second Grade to Fourth Grade reading levels in one year, it still looks bad for them if their standardized tests do not reveal that growth … but merely show they are way behind in Fifth Grade.  That’s the Betsy DeVos blind spot.
  • Missing the Point. Over use of suspensions can be a proxy for a broken school culture, a lack of social-emotional skills (not just with students but with teachers as well), implicit and explicit bias in the system, and complex trauma, such as ongoing domestic violence.  One out of three Black Middle and High School boys with disabilities receives out-of-school suspensions, as do one in four Black girls with disabilities, Ms. Martinez said.
  • Lack of Coordination. The cradle-to-prison pipeline reflects the erratic hand-offs from one institution to another; poor inter-agency coordination produces more harm.
  • The Die Is Cast. Children suspended out of school are three times as likely to show up in a juvenile justice database.  Nationally, at age 35, 68 percent of Black males without HS diplomas have gone to prison.  Black kids starting out with a one-in-10 chance of going to prison advance(!), if having gone to juvenile detention, to a one-in-three chance.
  • It Gets Worse. Martinez showed a video of “group therapy” in a California prison, where inmates were shackled in cages.  Not only do youth enter prison ill, but prison makes them even more sick, she reminded us.
  • ACES. Adverse Childhood Experiences, known as ACES, leave a legacy of increased morbidity and mortality – and pass from generation to generation, if parents were incarcerated, suffered from mental illness, or were substance abusers.  An ace may be nice in a poker game, but ACES are indicators of deep trouble if not countered.
  • The Second System Trap. Imprisonment locks in low earnings and residential instability.  Among felons, 75 percent remain poor 20 years after their releases.  “We are dying of the supposed cure,” Ms. Martinez said.
  • Hope Springs Eternal. Change is not a dirty word. As Ms. Martinez advised:
    • Reform out-of-school suspension policies; sexual assault or firearm cases, of course, are good reasons for suspension, but otherwise, learning in school is best;
    • Bring in parents;
    • Conduct teacher home visits;
    • Build your school community around code-of-conduct values, under which young people will begin to hold each other accountable;
    • Don’t allow disruptive children to ruin the experiences of classmates;
    • Teach children self-discipline and respect:
    • Build students’ social-emotional skills;
    • Use restorative justice practices, in which persons who are hurt tell the perpetrator personally about the harm inflicted, to make them think about it; and
    • “It is a disservice to children to lower expectations because children have undergone trauma,” Ms. Martinez said.

“This needs to be treated like an emergency,” Forward Change’s Tia Martinez said.  “Take it deadly seriously, right now.”

 

The Bottom Line

 

Kim Oliver, born, raised, and living in the North End of Hartford, vaulted from Hartford Public Schools to a degree in economics from Yale University and a master’s degree in business administration from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

 

She’s got serious skin in the Hartford game, and when she went to a conference and heard Arnold Chandler and Tia Martinez speak about the predictable pathways between pre-school and prison, she brought these data-driven analysts to Hartford.  Bringing them and hearing their ideas, of course, is just a start.  But it is a good start.  The program captivated the audience and suggested actions all of us can take.  Here is Arnold Chandler’s presentation.

 

If there is one thing we have learned in our work over the past nine years, it is that coordination matters.  Let us all double down on our commitment to organize ourselves in ways that break down the silos that splinter our work.  Let’s continue to ask philanthropy to invigorate cross-sector and cross-organization partnerships – real partnerships with the potential to change the game.

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