LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Students should pay greater attention to Los Angeles school-to-prison pipeline

As my first semester as a graduate student at USC heads toward its conclusion, the most fascinating comment I’ve encountered was stated at the beginning of the semester across the street from campus. It was stated casually, with a sense of underlying sadness by a staff member of the Neighborhood Academic Initiative. Simply put, she referred to being able to contact Gov. Jerry Brown to let him know how many beds would be required in our state prisons simply by examining test scores from local students in high school.

While the deterministic nature of this statement was immediately baffling, it piqued my interest in a subject that has thus far been the focus of much of my research this semester, and at its core can be identified as the school-to-prison pipeline. What exactly is this? Well, it is a social phenomena based on the relationship between how our primary education often predisposes children in low-income neighborhoods to entering the correctional system. How does this occur? Well, the answer to this question is complex and, naturally, remains a subject of contention. At its core though, lies an examination of the correlation referred to by the staff member of NAI, the manner in which subjects around education have been informed by correctional facilities, and how tone-deaf administrative policy around marginalized students lends itself to underperformance and the spike in drop-out rates that we have seen in low-income high schools across the country.

In the wake of many rural and suburban campus shootings, it is remarkable that security measures around search and seizures and routine friskings have seen dramatic spikes on urban campuses in which this phenomena has not regularly occurred. However, these policies treat students as prisoners in their own education experiences, grooming the normative nature of these experiences during important formative years. It is also proven that zero tolerance policies around petty academic offenses such as cell phone use, dress code violations and truancy disparately impact low-income students, for whom nuanced family responsibilities and ties make adherence to such policies more difficult. Moreover, the correlation discussed by that staff member has all but been documented by social scientists who have examined the relationship between male underperformance in school and propensity toward criminal behavior. If we are treating people as criminals before they are criminals, then how are we as a society surprised when they grow up to behave in that manner?

This subject is of great importance to this generation of students, as we not only face record incarceration rates, but also drop-out rates in L.A. Unified School District that continue to rise dangerously close to 50 percent. The implications of this relationship can only benefit the dialogue we have around the importance of education as not just a goal of a just society, but also a deterrent to the teeming prison cells that are a burden on our state.  While this may have been news to me, unless further discussion is had about this, it will continue to be the source of news for a new generation of students entering the education system this year.

Jason  Woodrum

Master of Social Work, First-Year Student