response: September/October 2019 Issue

Working to Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Greater New Jersey United Methodist Women partners with Rutgers University to host a forum on detention and mass incarceration of children of color and their families.

Working to Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline
Yvonne Bouknight, l., and Kathy Schultz attend “Detention and Mass Incarceration of Children of Color and Their Families” symposium.

In the United States, 1 in every 37 adults is under some form of correctional supervision. African Americans and Hispanics constitute 32 percent of the U.S. population yet make up 56 percent of the incarcerated population. Drug use rates among whites and African Americans are similar, yet African Americans are incarcerated for drug charges almost 6 times more than whites, all according to the NAACP.

Children too are affected by high incarceration rates. Many school disciplinary policies criminalize children beginning as early as preschool. The Center for American Progress reports that around 250 preschoolers in the United States are suspended or expelled from school each day, despite having no evidence that removing children from school leads to positive behavior changes. African-American children represent 18 percent of public preschool enrollment but 48 percent of preschoolers receive multiple out-of-school suspensions according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Zero-tolerance policies have reduced discretion and expanded what schools can consider punishable. This lack of support and extreme punishment for non-extreme behavior exacerbates existing challenges and kicks off the school-to-prison pipeline.

Migrant children in the United States face a similar pipeline. In February 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, around 11,500 minors were being held in detention facilities across the United States, both those who arrived “unaccompanied” and those separated from family upon arrival to the United States. Once in the U.S. detention system, it’s hard to get out.

So this past fall the Gateway District of the Greater New Jersey Conference United Methodist Women in collaboration with Rutgers University Law School hosted a symposium titled “Detention and Mass Incarceration of Children of Color and Their Families,” held at Rutgers University Law School in Newark, New Jersey.

The symposium was convened by Esther Canty-Barnes, clinical professor of law and director of the Education and Health Law Clinic at Rutgers University School as well as president of the Gateway North District United Methodist Women. She also serves as the Legacy Fund chair and on the Charter for Racial Justice team for the Greater New Jersey Conference United Methodist Women.

“United Methodist Women has always been a vital force in social justice in the country and throughout the world,” she said as she opened the daylong session. Greater New Jersey United Methodist Women partnered with Rutgers to address mass incarceration knowing that the church, organized for mission, can be a key part of ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

The day included panels focusing on immigration and education as well as guided discussion. The panels were all women, “not only intentionally but also because women are the ones doing this work,” said Canty-Barnes.

Organizations represented at the forum included Make the Road New Jersey, First Friends of NY/NJ, the American Civil Liberties Union, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, Greater New Jersey United Methodist Women and Rutgers Education and Health Law Clinic. Speakers included representatives from these organizations as well as racial justice trainers and psychologists.

Immigration and detention

The morning session focused on defining systemic racism, immigration policy in the United States, the financial incentives of mass detention and the realities of and trauma suffered by those detained. Panelists and participants also offered ways to serve and advocate to end criminalization of communities of color and mass incarceration.

“Racism is something that is embedded in every part of immigration policy,” explained Janis Rosheuvel, current racial justice trainer and former executive for racial justice for United Methodist Women. “Racism is not just about personal dynamics. It’s not just about someone using the N-word or streams of white men marching in polo shirts with TIKI torches. What we’re talking about here is how racism works in institutions and systems.”

She defined institutional racism as intentional, legal and overt; giving unequal outcomes to different races within the same system; shaping structures and institutions to favor one racial group over others; including discriminatory treatment, unfair policies and inequitable opportunities based on race; and self-perpetuating—unless it’s interrupted. She also illustrated the racism present in the Naturalization Act of 1790, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and “Operation Wet Back” in 1954.

“Immigration policy in the United States has worked as something that keeps people out, brings people in when we need them, and then excludes them,” she said.

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, however, are what Rosheuvel points to as really laying the groundwork for mass incarceration of migrants today and policies that separate families.

Lawyer Sara Cullinane of Make the Road New Jersey pointed as well to the 1996 laws as root causes for the “horrors that immigrant families have been experiencing today.” She shared the story of Yazmin Juárez, a migrant from Guatemala, whose 1-year-old daughter Mariee died a preventable death while in the custody of U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement in May 2018. After presenting themselves for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border, Juarez and her daughter were transferred to a detention center in Dilley, Texas, which Cullinane described as “one of the most notorious family detention facilities, with a long record of problems, abuses and mistreatment.” The Dilley detention center is run by CoreCivic, one of the largest private detention contractors in the United States, which also has a detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, not far from the site of the symposium. United Methodist Women members have joined protests against mistreatment in Dilley and have visited migrants in detention there.

More children have since died in ICE custody, a crisis not only of policies that lead to overload but by a system that sets asylum seekers up as criminals and values profit over people.

“The majority of detention centers in the United States are privately run and administered,” Cullinane said. “This creates a profit incentive, one that is growing.” The U.S. government, she explained, has increased its contracts with private detention firms, reversing a phase-out began by the previous administration. 

The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits of The United Methodist Church, known as Wespath, does not invest in private prisons, thanks in large part to the work of the United Methodist Interagency Task Force on Immigration, of which United Methodist Women was a part. And similar to United Methodist Women’s campaigns to directly address the boards of Chevron and Ford to encourage them to reduce carbon emissions, so Cullinane recommended addressing directly the banks who finance detention centers, such as Wells Fargo and J.P. Morgan, who fund the major private detention corporations CoreCivic and GEO Group.

“The federal government may not be changing its tune soon,” she said, “but there are other ways to push back.”

Rosa Santana with First Friends of NJ/NY, a migrant advocacy nonprofit, spoke of the importance of visiting detained migrants and supporting resettlement, and psychologist Aida Ismael-Lennon discussed the trauma experienced by migrant children, beginning with the violence they experience in home countries and continuing to leaving home and culture, facing a dangerous migration journey and then being imprisoned and separated from family upon arrival to the United States. 

“When you take children from their caregivers, there’s a psychological toll,” she said. She spoke about attachment and its importance to children’s well-being. Being torn away from a source of support in the midst of all of the other troubles migrant children face only exacerbates mental health problems for them for their entire lifetimes, especially children who end up remaining a part of the detention and foster care system.

“It’s hard to find sponsors for children so they can be released,” Santana said. “It’s not always easy to prove you are related.”

Education and criminalizing students

Like Ismael-Lennon, psychologist Susan Herschman spoke of the trauma faced by children of color in increasingly policed schools.

“We can’t talk about children of color, disciplinary actions and the school-to-prison pipeline without talking about trauma,” she said. “Racial trauma is something that happens starting at a very young age. When children are removed from school as a form of discipline, this creates a trauma for them. And in turn that trauma can lead to other behaviors, often negative behaviors. In essence you create a vicious cycle.”

Canty-Barnes talked about racial segregation of schools and the uneven use of policing and extreme disciplinary actions in schools with a majority of students of color. These students already experience the consequences of a discriminatory society before they even enter the school doors. Most students of color attend majority minority schools, she explained.

“Kids are more segregated now than they were in the 1970s,” she said. “This is becoming more and more of a problem.” The majority minority schools have rates of suspension far higher than majority-white schools for the same offenses.

For the 2014-2015 school year, Canty-Barnes explained, “2.8 million children got one or more out of school suspensions; 1.1. million were black students, 600,000 were Latino students, and over a half a million were students under IDEA, or classified children who have special needs. Black students are 3.8 times more likely to receive a school suspension than white students.

“Black students are 1.9 percent more likely to be expelled and 2.3 times more likely to be arrested or referred to a law enforcement officer.”

Portia Allen-Kyle, lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, spoke of how even the physical space of schools is beginning to resemble prisons.

Violent tragedies have led to “an onslaught of really terrible law when it comes to school safety and school construction,” Allen-Kyle said. “Bills have come through that require new school construction to look like prisons—to limit the amount of windows, to limit the amount of doors, setting perimeters around the campus, checkpoints, making schools really feel like carceral institutions.  

“We’ve also seen a relaxation of juvenile confidentiality law that allows schools to communicate with police about your children in ways they previously could not have and a number of reactionary laws that sound like they’re protecting children but at the end of the day undermine our educational system,” she continued.

She spoke of behaviors and infractions once resolved through school disciplinary processes now being funneled to juvenile justice systems and law enforcement as well as inconsistent discretionary practices regarding what infractions warrant punishment and which students are punished.

“When you introduce discretion, it is always the black and brown children who receive the short end of the stick.”

United Methodist Women in the community

As partners in the work to end the school-to-prison pipeline, forum participants received the Charter for Racial Justice, and free copies of United Methodist Women’s mission study Immigration and the Bible were available. United Methodist Women informational posters were also displayed on the wall.

“This is one of the priorities of United Methodist Women. As New Jersians we’ve taken this as something we want to go deep on,” said Yvonne Bouknight, United Methodist Women Program Advisory Group member from Greater New Jersey. “To be educated is important so that people know what is before us and then know how to advocate for the beliefs we hold deep.”

The Greater New Jersey United Methodist Women had hosted a vigil at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the summer of 2018, said Kathy Schultz, conference president. She saw the forum at Rutgers as a good follow-up. 

“The vigil this summer was specifically aimed at getting the children reunited with their parents,” she said. “Having this meeting focusing on the children still separated from their parents is very important.”

Schultz also spoke about the impact of attending Assembly 2018 and getting to hear from Marian Wright Edelman and Michelle Alexander and learn about the school-to-prison pipeline. Both Schultz and Bouknight agreed that education is an important first step to action and a great role for United Methodist Women.

“That’s the encouraging part: That we can get the word out. If people don’t know, no action can be taken,” said Bouknight. “I’ve always had the mantra that each one teaches one. And if I can touch just one person, that one person touches someone else, and that’s how we make a difference.” 


Tara Barnes is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 9/3/2019 12:00:00 AM
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