Mayoral Musings: The Pipeline

By: Albert B. Kelly, Mayor, City of Bridgeton

What do we think will happen when school discipline is raised to the level of law enforcement?

Very recently, I read a Star Ledger Guest Column by Rev. Charles Boyer from Woodbury and Rev. Timothy Adkins-Jones from Newark, discussing the disparities that exist between the ways children of color are dealt with as it relates to school discipline in comparison to white children. Their point was that adolescent behavior that’s often handled with in-school detention often becomes criminalized behavior when it involves black and Hispanic students.

In their piece, the pastors provided a startling statistic that in New Jersey, a black child is 30 times more likely to be committed to a youth facility than a white child even though they commit offenses at roughly the same rate. The focus was on youth incarceration, mostly teens, but I wanted to pick up the threads a little earlier because I suspect that is where it starts. 

As for prejudice, I’m not naïve and I know that in all people, no matter what their race or ethnicity, there are prejudices and bigotries that come out in all sorts of ways. But I also know that depending on who controls the levers of power, wealth, and advantage, not all prejudice is equivalent nor are its consequences. 

In researching the issue of disparities in school discipline, I found that the Government Accounting Office (GAO) prepared a report on the issue in 2018. They focused on K-12 education in a report entitled “Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys, and Students with Disabilities.” The report looked at, among other things, the patterns in disciplinary actions in public schools and charter schools.

The GAO looked at five school districts in five states (California, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Dakota, and Texas) and reviewed data from DOE’s Civil Rights Data Collection for 2013-2014. The data included demographics, school type, out-of-school suspensions and in-school suspensions, referrals to law enforcement, expulsions, corporal punishment and school-related arrests. They also factored in the poverty level of the school.

The GAO report found that “black students, boys, and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined in K-12 public schools.” Heaven help the black male student with a disability. The report went on to say: “This pattern of disproportionate discipline persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school these students attended.” 

The report also stated that black students were overrepresented among students in all categories including: suspended from school (23.2%), expulsion (14.6%), corporal punishment (22.1%), referred to law enforcement (10.4%), or school-related arrested (19.4%). It starts early, as black students accounted for 19% of all pre-school students, but represented 47% of preschoolers suspended.

At about this point, I couldn’t help but think back to South Carolina cop Ben Fields slamming to the floor a 16-year-old black female Spring Valley High School student sitting at her desk because she was “disrupting class” by failing to hand over her iPhone. 

On a topic like this, there may be one or two souls out there who chalk up disparities to some notion that black students, boys, and students with disabilities are just plain bad and therefore more deserving of whatever befalls them, but reasonable people know better. The hard part is that it all starts with subtle assumptions made by adults on a given day and, once made, many of these assumptions become self-fulfilling.

The “zero tolerance” mindset is part of the issue. Sure, there are select circumstances where there can be no tolerance and reasonable people know where the line gets drawn. But under zero tolerance, especially for black kids, simple teenage antics become “harassment,” garden variety arguments become “bullying,” and an astounding number of items become an “instrument which may be used in an offensive manner.” 

What do we think will happen when things are raised to the level of law enforcement? How does it get better if kids are suspended and idling away hours outside of school? Start imposing these types of punishments early and often enough and school ends up becoming the “pipeline to prison.” There are real consequences to these systemic disparities and the punishments behind them should be considered the nuclear option reserved only for extreme circumstances, not for the convenience of adult stereotypes.