Confronting the School-to-Prison Pipeline in the Classroom

I have one hope for all of my former students: that they never have to meet my husband.

My husband is an amazing man. He is hardworking, inquisitive and thoughtful. He is my biggest supporter. He is my best friend and the father of my son (and, soon, my baby girl). But my students wouldn’t meet the man I know. Data shows that if they were to meet my husband, they’d come to know him in his role as a Federal Public Defender.

(U.S. Department of Education / Creative Commons)

My husband is assigned to serve clients who cannot afford a private attorney for federal court and are facing charges that range from armed robbery to white collar fraud. Most of his cases involve drugs, guns or immigration–and his defendants overwhelmingly have backgrounds that mirror those of my students.

My husband can list on one hand the number of clients he has represented who have had a positive experience in our city’s most at-risk schools. One was first handcuffed by police at 10 years old, at school and in front of his teacher and classmates. One graduated from a Dallas ISD high school, but never progressed past a third grade reading level. Many were never diagnosed with learning disabilities, despite those disabilities being obvious from a cursory review of the letters sent to their public defender. 

I know these students. I worked as a teacher and administrator for 11 years, with thousands of young people just like them. When my husband tells me about his cases, I hold my breath: Was I a teacher of theirs that couldn’t reach them? Was I the administrator who put them on a suspension?

Nearly 70 percent of state prisoners don’t have a high school diploma, and for too many students the the pathway from the classroom to the courtroom can begin as early as preschool. What’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline adversely impacts low-income students, students of color or students with disabilities. Black students are three to four times more likely to be suspended than their counterparts; students with disabilities are twice as likely.

Although efforts to address this problem have often excluded girls, black girls are suspended six times as often as their classmates, and a 2012 study showed the connection between higher rates of disciplinary action and future rates of detention or incarceration. When a student is suspended, they become three times more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system. The proportion of girls in the juvenile justice system is increasing, and black girls are the fastest growing population in juvenile detention.

Women and girls of color also fall into another pipeline—one that begins with abuse. As many as 80 percent of the girls in some state juvenile system report having survived sexual violence.

My husband’s clients deserve to have their stories told, and judges who likely grew up in circumstances different than those of the defendants before them should constantly be reminded of the viciousness of cyclical poverty. But the school records he can offer in court are not prospective. They cannot turn back time, and they do nothing to provide defendants with the educations they deserved but never received. They do not hold our schools accountable, nor do they reverse harsh zero-tolerance policies or enact effective teacher training in schools. They do not provide funding for more counselors or set-up mentoring programs.

Instead, they’re now reminders of a tragic truth: When we aren’t successful in educating children, we give up and send them to serve detention in a cage.

These facts have pushed me to reflect on my own decisions, and to reckon with them. I still remember the student I met in my first year of teaching who had so much difficulty focusing that I seated him in the back of the room—convincing myself that there were 35 other students in the classroom that needed my attention more. While I was an administrator, I met twins who came in wide-eyed as sixth graders, but struggled so severely academically that they became disheartened and stopped attending school altogether.

I feel continuous remorse wrestling with the knowledge that these students, among others, slipped through the cracks under my watch. But I also know that one teacher or one school implementing best practices is not enough. It’s time for national leadership around education and discipline policies, around bias in the classroom and the courtroom and around the need for economic justice that perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline.

The day may never come where my husband receives a case file with one of my students names on it—but frankly, I’m tired of coming home each night and hearing him speak about anyone our schools have failed. I’m glad his clients have him by their side, because they deserve a great lawyer. But too many of them also deserve to never need one in the first place.


Tina Green is the Founder of Words With Conviction, an advocacy training organization for the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated. She is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.