Remarkably, this story plays out in real life daily. Nationwide, teachers are far more likely to channel young African American boys into alternative education tracks at very early points in their school experience.
After class last Friday, as I was packing up my bags, one of the students in the class went over to talk to another student. They are both African American young women. I could not hear what the first student said, but the second one responded "They will do that in ________. You can't let them get away with it. You have to go to the school and talk to them. They will do that [whatever the 'that' was] the very first time." I surmised they were discussing an incident with a child at one of the schools in the area in which they live. Because we had just discussed the case of Trent, and the at-risk status of African American boys for no reason other than being born an African American male, I stepped over to them.
"It sounds like you have your own real life case of Trent."
"Yes, ma'am, I do. I have two boys, (she named their young ages) and every day I tell them they are starting out with one strike against them and they have to prove everyone wrong." She went on to tell me about her first encounter with the school system and how hard she works to keep her children out of the pipeline. I had informed the class about what is called "The Cradle to Prison Pipeline" where children as young as 5 or 6 are channeled into juvenile detention and the justice system rather than provided intervention into the very real problems they face in their communities. You can read the report here.
As I was driving home from work later that day, I felt incredibly sad thinking about that incident. I could not imagine a mother having to tell her child that every day--imagine as a young boy how that might affect you as you were growing up? Why should she have to tell her boys that every day as a reminder of the grim future they yet may face?
The Children's Defense Fund has an active campaign to dismantle the cradle to prison pipeline. One of the problems is our spending more money on imprisonment than on education. Although study after study has shown that incarceration of juveniles is ineffective in correcting behavior, we continue to do it over prevention and intervention programs that have been shown effective. From the Defense Fund's report:
Although the majority of fourth graders cannot read at grade level, states spend about three times as much money per prisoner as per public school pupil.
One mechanism was addressing this was the Youth PROMISE Act, HR 1064, introduced in 2009. From Rep. Scott (VA), who introduced the bill:
There is overwhelming evidence to show that it is entirely feasible to move children from a cradle to prison pipeline to a cradle to college, or jobs, pipeline. All the credible research shows that a continuum of evidenced-based prevention programs for youth identified as being at risk of involvement in delinquent behavior, and intervention for those already involved, will greatly reduce crime and save much more than they cost when compared to the avoided law enforcement and social welfare expenditures. And the research reveals that these programs are most effective when provided in the context of a coordinated, collaborative local strategy involving law enforcement and other local public and private entities working with children identified as at risk of involvement in the criminal justice system.
Unfortunately, even with hundreds of sponsors and support from many cities, states, and children's organizations, this bill stalled in committee and has never been referred to the House for a discussion and vote, even though the committee recommended it go before the full House.
As a social worker, and one who has long been involved at the community level, I know that early intervention and prevention efforts could save the lives of many of our children. Children whose lives are like Trent's: in upheaval from environmental effects that we could address. Poverty is the single largest common denominator affecting the children who get into trouble early in schools.
In Mississippi, 1 in 2 (almost 48%) of black children is poor. In Mississippi, a baby is born poor every 37 minutes. In Mississippi, 69% of white 4th graders cannot read at grade level, and 92% of black children cannot read at grade level.
Education is the single most important factor in preventing a life of poverty, and in increasing life opportunities. There are crucial points in the development of children from pre-natal to adulthood that can significantly affect the likelihood a child will complete school. There are crucial points where we can do prevention and early intervention that will change the trajectory of our children from headed to prison to headed to college. If we take away education by funneling our children into inadequate alternative settings rather than addressing the contributing factors, then we have failed ourselves as well as our children.