School-to-Prison Pipeline

Lam at Kern Valley State Prison in December 2012. On his left cheek is a small tattoo, 4 dots above 2 horizontal lines; "XIV."

By Debora Gordon

Every time a student does poorly in school, or drops out, there is likely a great increase in the chances he will wind up in prison. I recall in my discussion with Lt. Jeff Smith at Kern Valley State Prison that 70% of inmates are high school dropouts. While correlation is not causation, there is no question that remaining in school through at least high school graduation substantially decreases the likelihood of criminal activity and subsequent imprisonment.

I can identify students who are struggling academically in school, and those who have limited impulse control and run into consistent behavioral problems. I realize it is not necessarily only these factors that lead to prison (or violent death), and these factors are not necessarily a prediction of prison, either.

Had I been asked to speculate which of the hundreds of students I have worked with might wind up in prison, I do not think I would have thought of Lam. Certainly not prior to his first brush with the law that landed him in Juvenile Hall. And I now think of some students from 10 or 15 years ago that I have run into lately, kids who were belligerent or years behind in school, several of whom seemed to be headed for big trouble.

Such as Marquis, now 23, who was, in the tenth grade, immature and rarely completed assignments. But when I ran into him a few weeks ago, he was finishing his A.A. degree at Laney, and getting ready to enroll in a pilot training program.

Or Matthew, a student who vandalized my car one day after I called his mother to discuss his behavior. He is now about 27, attending culinary school in Napa and married to Paloma, with whom he has a small child.

And there’s Jonathan, now 25, who spent most of his high school career hanging out in the hall, smoking cigarettes in the parking lot, writing graffiti, and having a generally contemptuous attitude towards school, now working in a local restaurant and studying at Chabot.

Lam, who turns 22 tomorrow, on the other hand, was a good student, did his assignments at a high level of skill compared to his peers, and was polite and was on time to class. Somehow, Marquis, Matthew, Jonathan and many others outgrew some adolescent behaviors, avoided serious trouble and now are building productive lives. But Lam got sucked into a gang, despite the best efforts of his adult Boy Scout leaders, his mother and his stepfather, and his teachers.

As I wrote at the very beginning of this series, my impressions of Lam were that he was a “nice kid.” In getting to know him through this Oakland Voices project, I wonder how this could have happened to him, (and, of course, to Alicia – the woman he was convicted of shooting in the eye). I have found him to be intelligent, reflective and compassionate.

Yet, I have to balance these qualities with the fact that he was involved (whether directly responsible or not) in a violent crime that has left one person with lifelong serious injuries, and that has impacted many beyond her, including Lam and his family.

Below is information I received from the OUSD Research and Development Department regarding the rate of dropouts for 2011 – the most recent year for which they have complete statistics. It is important to look at the number of students in the context of the percentage. While more than 10 times as many African American students dropped out as white students, the percentage of the total number of students is less than 7% greater, due to the low enrollment of white students.

African American and Latinos are disproportionately represented in prisons, and also have a substantially higher dropout rate in the Oakland Unified School District. Educators do need to ask themselves to what degree we are not serving these populations of students, resulting in their leaving the school system. If we are not preparing them for post-secondary education, or the workplace, then, intentionally or not, we may be preparing for the alternatives offered by the street, often resulting in gang affiliation, criminal behaviors and ultimate incarceration. While some high school dropouts do go on to lead productive and thoughtful lives,too many wind up dead or imprisoned.

Class of 2011 Cohort Dropouts: 766 students

African American:        350 students                30.8% dropout rate

Latino:                                255 students                30.0% dropout rate

Asian:                                 74 students                  15.4% dropout rate

White:                                 33 students                  23.1% dropout rate

Pacific Islander:            14 students                  35.0% dropout rate

Native American:           4 students                  33.3% dropout rate

Filipino:                               5 students                    33.3% dropout rate

English Learners:        219 students                36.6% dropout rate

Special Education:       118 students                33.7% dropout rate

Migrant Education:         10 students                32.3% dropout rate

(Note:  This is for district schools, plus two locally funded charters – Oakland Charter High and American Indian Public High – and a small number of special education students at Hillside Academy or non-public school special education programs.)

Since the Newtown shootings and other attacks that have happened since then, there has been more focus on gun violence.  I have heard many different solutions proposed, from arming teachers to background checks for gun sales. But I have not heard a significant proposal for explicitly educating children, starting in preschool and continuing through 12th grade, in non-violence, conflict and anger management, impulse control, the impact of violence on the offender and his/her family, as well as the victim and victim’s family, as well as in empathy.

Oakland Tribune reporter Scott Johnson recently wrote an article on the lack of empathy as a specific component in the perpetuation of violence. This is something I have believed for a long time, and although I would not describe Lam as entirely lacking in empathy, I feel perhaps empathy is not sufficiently developed in those who would pick up a weapon with the intent to cause great harm or death.

In my own classroom, since beginning this series of articles, I try to remember that much more than the subject matter, the students are learning me. They are learning how I handle conflict, stress, frustration, fatigue and other challenges as an adult, as well as how I express encouragement, compassion, hope and even joy and happiness. As teachers, parents and other adults, probably the greatest contribution we can make to reducing violence and helping our young people not go from school to prison, is to model the best behavior we can. Each time we interact with young people, we are giving them an example.  I hope to be a good one.

Author Profile

Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist. She has been living in Oakland since 1991, moving here to become a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. In all of these roles, Debora is interested in developing a life of the mind. “As a mere human living in these simultaneously thrilling and troubled times,” Debora says, “I try to tread lightly, live thoughtfully, teach peace, and not take myself too seriously.”

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