Assembly 2018

School-to-Prison Workshop is a Major Draw at Assembly 2018

School-to-Prison Workshop is a Major Draw at Assembly 2018
Cheryl Kendrick of the Northern Illinois Conference takes part in the school-to-prison- pipeline workshop at Assembly 2018 in Columbus, Ohio

On the second day of Assembly United Methodist Women members from conferences across the country filled a Columbus Convention Center meeting room for a workshop titled “Interrupting the School to Prison Pipeline.” Coordinated and led by Emily Jones, executive for racial justice for United Methodist Women, it was offered as part of United Methodist Women’s ongoing focus on mass incarceration and the criminalization of communities of color. 

The term school-to-prison pipeline refers to the troubling national trend where public school children are harshly penalized for minor infractions of school rules. Severe policies and practices such as zero tolerance, disciplinary alternative schools, police in schools, court involvement and juvenile detention employed by school districts and municipalities disproportionately penalizes disadvantaged youth, and black, Latino and special needs students are the most vulnerable.

Jones said she designed the workshop to introduce the unacquainted to this issue, and to give those who were already familiar with it tools for advocacy. “Assembly is wonderful, but where change is going to happen is when women go back to their local communities and start sharing this information,” she said. “They become advocates, they’re talking to their local- and state-level decision makers and continuing to push for change.”  

The session opened with attendees introducing themselves and stating a word that they associate with the school-to-prison pipeline. Most chose words like “inhumane,” “ridiculous” and “troubling” that expressed their outrage on the topic. One participant countered with “fixable,” a gesture of hope for a circumstance that they all agreed is dire.

Jones led attendees through a series of thought-provoking exercises to prompt reflection and conversation. They broke into groups to share ideas about factors contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. They also role-played various scenarios—addressing a school PTA about zero-tolerance policies, speaking about the school-to-prison pipeline at church and raising the issue with a local official—to prepare them for advocacy. For one exercise, a series of true-or-false questions about the criminal justice system was presented to the group and it sparked considerable reaction because it challenged their beliefs and assumptions. 

Troubling Statistics

Evelyn Rose of the Florida Conference was struck by a statistic which stated that the projected cost of keeping young people in prisons is $35 billion. “We could pretty much end hunger if we used that money wisely,” she reasoned.

“I’m actually surprised that Pennsylvania is not one of the [top] six states that sends many of its children, percentage wise, to prison,” said Polly Riddle, an Eastern Pennsylvania Conference member. That distinction, she learned, belongs to New Jersey, Wisconsin, Montana, Delaware, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Pennsylvania, however, is among 20 states that spend the most on prisons. 

“I became concerned about the school-to-prison pipeline when I read in response magazine a few years ago that there were [private] prisons and they had to be filled up in order to make money, and I was appalled,” Riddle continued. As a former teacher in Philadelphia she taught several students whose fathers were incarcerated. Money spent on sending children to detention centers and jails, she said, “could be spent more effectively helping a child get a lift in life through education.”

Thelma Senn of the New York conference teaches Sunday school at her church and says oftentimes mothers in her congregation who are exasperated with their children’s negative behavior will ask her to speak with them. Now, with what she has learned from the workshop, she says, “I can talk with them and encourage them, not discourage them."

Julia Chance is managing editor of response magazine.

Posted or updated: 6/4/2018 12:00:00 AM

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