The Charter-To-Prison Pipeline

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The charter system that often paints itself as a better option for black parents does not acknowledge the harm rigid disciplinary policies can impose on black students.

In late September, headlines flickered across my Twitter timeline about a six-year-old black girl who was arrested at school for a temper tantrum. In outrage and confusion, I opened up the articles to understand how such a thing could happen.

It turns out that, actually, two six-year-olds were arrested. Their mugshots were taken. Both were charged with misdemeanors.

Meralyn Kirkland came forward to the media to identify her granddaughter, Kaia, as one of the two children arrested. Kaia has sleep apnea and didn’t get enough rest the night prior, the grandmother explained. When she was taken to the office for being disruptive, she was grabbed by the wrist by a school staffer and began to kick. She was then arrested and charged.

Following public outcry, the charges against the children were dropped and the school resource officer who arrested them was fired. Despite these developments, the fact remains: six-year-olds were arrested.

It takes some digging through all the media headlines to find out, all this happened at a charter school.

Often, privately operated charter schools are exempt from criticism in the unique role they play in the pipeline.

The public school system gets a lot of (well-deserved) heat for the school-to-prison pipeline—for pushing children through disciplinary practices into the juvenile justice system and, eventually to prison. This pipeline disproportionately impacts students of color. Often, privately operated charter schools are exempt from criticism in the unique role they play in the pipeline.

Some charter schools—lacking the mandate that traditional public schools have to provide an education for all students—implement a “no-excuses” discipline policy. These policies can result in increased suspensions and expulsions for even minor violations.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin has seen the effects of charter school “no-excuses” policies.

“The most a parent can do if their child is expelled from a charter school is return them to Milwaukee Public Schools or try to send them to another charter,” Angela Harris, a Milwaukee Public School teacher, tells The Progressive.

Studies have shown that students who are suspended, especially repeatedly, are more likely to drop out of school and end up in jail. Milwaukee already has among the highest incarceration rates for black men in the country.

“In terms of the way that black students are criminalized, I think that both charter schools and public schools are guilty of feeding black students into the school to prison pipeline,” Harris said. “The difference, I believe, is that charter schools have the ability to control their student population.”

The strict rules and guidelines in charter schools lead to seemingly shocking reasons for suspensions. Two black girls were suspended for wearing their hair in a braided style at a Massachusetts charter school. In Newark, New Jersey, a charter student with special needs was suspended for throwing a book. One New York charter school principal made a “Got to Go” list of “difficult” students, nine of the sixteen eventually left the schools.

A2016 study from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, found that at 500 charters across the nation, suspension rates in 2011-12 for black students were at least 10 percent higher than for their white peers. At 374 charter schools studied, more than 25 percent of their students were suspended at least once in the 2011-12 school year.

It should be said that the study also identified “low-suspending” charter schools compared to their traditional public school counterparts. But in general, although the charter system often paints itself as a better option for black parents, in general, it has not acknowledged the harm that rigid disciplinary policies have imposed on black students.

Daniel Losen, one of the researchers of the study, emphasized how various charter schools referenced the broken windows theory as their guiding principle—that punishing the small offenses will deter people from committing more serious ones.

“When they apply this in a school they are treating the children like, ‘if we don’t treat them in this harsh way, the kids are going to turn into criminals’,” Losen tells The Progressive. “And that’s a scenario that whiter and wealthier communities would never accept.”

Charter schools that are majority black more often focus on teaching obedience, Losen says.

These practices also disproportionately impact students of color in increasingly racially segregated charter schools and are supported by school resource officers, as with the Florida charter school arresting scandal. And there has been a push to place police in charter schools across the country—in places like South Carolina, Ohio, Florida, and Washington, D.C.

The presence of school resource officers puts students under surveillance and works to criminalize student behavior.

According to Alicia Garza of the Black Census Project, black parents want to see more police presence in schools. They found it was based on many of the parent’s fear of a mass shooting.

But the presence of school resource officers puts students under surveillance and works to criminalize student behavior. And black students are more likely to be arrested in school because school resource officers are more likely to be in schools that black students attend.

The common response to criticisms about discipline from charter advocates is that strict charter school models produce better test scores. Some of these no excuse charter schools do have higher test scores, but at what expense? Black children like Kaia are routinely losing out.