7-ways-to-disrupt-the-school-to-prison pipleline-in-urban-education

“Public schools therefore are serving their purpose well in that they prepare students to fulfill their predestined roles in society. So if you’re serious about this thing, you’ll probably spend a lifetime banging your head against a proverbial wall.”

Guiding Question: What is the first step in urban education reform? Thank you for commenting below this post with your answer.

Okay, it’s Labor Day and hopefully school, teaching, reform, and all the rest of it is the furthest thing from your mind. But just in case you’re like me and a chronic workaholic; this article is a welcome reprieve from pounding away at your laptop or scrolling endlessly through your smart phone. So let’s get into it.

First, know that nobody really wants to end the school to prison pipeline. Oh yeah, they all talk a good talk. The school officials cite urban education research and best practices, but most of them would rather look like they’re doing something than actually do it. The activists go hard at trying to get the school officials to acknowledge their dirt, but don’t call for the same accountability from the communities they serve. And really the activists and advocates are as socially conditioned as the rest of us. I mean do any of us really think we can topple this monster? Like, for real?

When discussing the irrefutable connection to school climate (I didn’t say suspensions because suspensions are merely a by-product) and prisons we’re talking about multi-billion dollar industries. America is a capitalist society which by definition requires a permanent underclass and every facet of our society—media, health care, food industry, organized religion, criminal justice system, political structure–is geared towards that perpetuation, including resistance endeavors. I’m not an economist so I’ll leave that right there and let you research the rest. Just know that any semblance of education equality is a direct threat to the American power structure.

Public schools therefore are serving their purpose well in that they prepare students to fulfill their predestined roles in society. So if you’re serious about this thing, you’ll probably spend a lifetime banging your head against a proverbial wall. Your health will suffer, your relationships too, and most likely you won’t be able to change a blessed thing. Still in? Me too!

1) Get Your Paper Right!

As above mentioned, school officials don’t really want reform. Why would they? Their job security is dependent upon failing schools. The worst the district is, the more money is allocated, more experts are hired, and they can all demand higher pay: Classic example of poverty pimping.

invest-in-urban-educationSo if you want to incite your school officials to take any real action; scratch that, if you want school officials to even listen, you better get your paper right. Speak the language. Best believe, they will take every opportunity to thump their degrees, polysyllabic words, and endless theories. They will leave you in a cloud of well perfumed dust meant to reaffirm their intellectual superiority and your powerlessness. Beat them to the punch. Come in hard citing the data, theory drop, use a couple of twenty dollar words of your own.  If research isn’t your thing, get with a data nerd who loves the stuff. Ask good questions, take even better notes, and read the notes over. Follow up with them if you have to. The data nerd in your life will be happy to have someone genuinely interested in what they have to say. Read a few academic articles. Watch some good TED talks. Education inequality, school-to-prison pipeline, transformational/organizational change, change management theory are good places to start.   Just make sure that you end up with a combination of qualitative and quantifiable data that you know like the back of your hand.

2) Put your money up.

Every reform effort needs a bank roll. If you’re the check writer, or the grant writer, or the fund solicitor make sure you finance what’s needed. The first priority is a communications/engagement plan. You can’t secure what people don’t believe in. So be strategic and put money towards informing and engaging the entire school community. Start with mobilizing the students, their families, and the community activists. You need the people coming out deep. More than that, you need them coming out prepared to share their stories because they have lived the school-to-prison pipeline. The second priority is socioemotional supports for that school community. Everybody involved in this monster has scars. We need to patch the kids up first, but know that those who are trusted to serve them, often are impaired because of an inability to see past their own hurt (real or perceived). So pass the salve around indiscriminately.  Third priority is the securement of savvy project managers. There are different roles that need to be fulfilled, particularly for an inside outside approach. You need someone who can streamline, navigate, or buck the internal school district practices (i.e. minimize the bureaucratic bullshit). You need someone who can rally, inform, organize, and lead the community. Nothing gets school officials attention more than well populated school board meetings. And nothing gets their attention faster than negative coverage of schools in the press. Make sure your project manager understands PR.


3) Speak truth to power.

We’ve well established that you are swimming upstream when fighting the school-to-prison pipeline. Really, what could be more sinister? Insidious? The research is wide spread and so school officials cannot deny what exists. So they deflect and discuss poverty and trauma until they’re blue in the face. Much of that is just code for, “This is the best we can do with these students.” Even most well-meaning liberal educators are not fully prepared to out the dirty little secret, address the elephant in the room, speak the uncomfortable inconvenient truth that racism affects the way educators perceive, treat, and teach students. Instead, they’ll tell you to speak about the school-to-prison pipeline in terms of “social justice” rather than racism. This is why you must employ an inside outside approach. You need the rebel rousers, truth tellers, ‘bout it ‘bout it folk that you have engaged to tell the whole truth. You need them to call that thing what it is. These people must know the system well, but can’t be a part of it. They must be above retaliation and immune to political/career jockeying that stops “good” people from doing what’s best for children. These people must be vocal.  You need some loud scary voices that school officials want to silence. You need some articulate folks with level heads and critical thinking on fleek. You need some religious leaders to appeal to the conscience. And you need them all explicitly addressing the same thing—the systematic, institutional, individual racism (and capitalism) that fuels the school-to-prison pipeline.

4) Go to the little people.

Talk to students directly. Video record their testimonies if possible. Remember, you’re trying to appeal to conscience here. Any educator worth the title, cannot deny a student’s need when voiced directly by that student. Next, go to those who have the most genuine contact with students. That’s often the building staff with the least respected titles—the paraprofessionals (what kind of fucked up title is that anyway?), the teacher assistants, the school safety officers, the secretaries, the bus drivers, the custodians. Most of these professionals live in the communities where they work. They know the students. Ask them for advice and ideas. Empower them.


5) Follow the light.

By now you understand that in order to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, you need a miracle. Thankfully, we serve a God who passes miracles out like tic tacs. Know that! Understand the spiritual warfare that you are embarking on. Put on the full breastplate of righteousness. Put on the helmet of salvation. Yield the sword of the Word and lift your shield of faith, which will quench every fiery dart coming your way (and they will be plenty). Most importantly, cloak yourself in LOVE. Your personhood, your ability, your character will be attacked from all sides. Again, this is not flesh and blood you’re wrestling with. The enemy has a stranglehold on our schools. His plan is to corrupt the most innocent and pure of heart and topple entire generations and if you stand in the way he will come after you full force. Fast and pray, stay in that Word, praise and worship, ask the saints to pray for you. Don’t break. Don’t grow weary. And do not roll in the mud with your foes. Remain above it all. It will hurt. Your flesh will cry out and you will want to go for blood. Don’t. When they go low, you stay high. God will recompense. All you have to do is execute your calling with excellence and keep the popcorn ready.

6) Document, document, document.

It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove. The axiology you are facing is ultra concerned with things. They need charts, they need evidence, and if you don’t have it they will discrschool to prison pipeline 3edit you. Be ready. Mark the date of every meeting, where it happened and who was there. Take copious notes, because their denial game is strong. Convert your work into flow charts and shiny powerpoints. Leave them no reason to not back students.

7) Self care.

Okay, in the beginning we talked about waning health and relationships and I just said that to sound smart and draw you in. I rebuke all of that. Your health will flourish. Your relationships will thrive. Why? Because you ain’t a superhero and you’re not pretending to be one. You plead your case to the most high God. He sets your feet on solid ground. Know that. Laugh for no reason, I’m talking toddler amusement. Fart in bathtubs, clap incessantly, dance every time you hear a tune. Get massages. Get a drink. Get laid. Walk fully in the abundance that is all around. Your foes are many, yes. But your friends are more. You are fighting for children. Surely, you will be blessed. Take the time to notice it, to breathe it in. Take the time to be grateful for a purpose, for being your authentic self. And take time off. Happy Labor Day!


  1. Dan says:

    Banke – this is a great piece, and wise. All seven are so important. I particularly like 7: Self-Care, so important. As a white person, I also appreciate the need for the “thing.” The proof, the documentation, the evidence, the object. And I think we all need these things, in one form or another, though some of us need some things more than others. And we need more than these things, we need dreams and convictions, and relationships and love. I think we need all of these and more.

    And race is in the mix, no doubt. And somehow we all need to do our work. White work, POC work, together work so that we can see this and also better understand how to transcend all of the forms of racism you mention.

  2. Akinyemi Awopetu says:

    Can’t wait to get rolling with this.

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