Where Schools & Prisons Meet

The biggest appeal to me of working for the ACLU of Texas this summer was the opportunity to work on one of the greatest issues our country is facing: the tragic progression known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate and the biggest prison population of any country in the world. This is not because the U.S. has an inherently greater percentage of bad or dangerous citizens, but rather because our criminal justice system is undeniably broken . And the brokenness isn’t just evident in the adult criminal justice system; its also evident in the institutions that pave the ways to our prisons: the mental health industry, the juvenile justice system, and the public education system.

The nexus between our nation’s schools and its prisons is a critical junction for youth. Classrooms should be the place where children, regardless of their culture or their family’s background, can learn vital knowledge and prepare to excel as adults. Sadly, instead of leveling the playing field, many schools only exacerbate the inequalities in society. Kids who need the most nurturing too often get pushed out of the educational environment and end up in our criminal justice system instead. The ACLU is doing a lot of great work to try to end this national trend, including several actions centered on policy work that I’ve been able to contribute to this summer. A couple of my favorites:

1. Making Schools Safe for ALL Children: Since the increase in school shootings and gang violence in the 1990s, schools have been under great pressure to maximize campus security efforts. One of the negative consequences of this development is that adolescent misconduct is now frequently handled by school police instead of administrators, often with damaging results. A key project of mine this summer has been assisting in the creation of a report on the use of force on students, including conducting open records requests to school districts and identifying the extent to which police use tasers, pepper spray, and other extreme tactics on kids while they’re at school. Many schools have no clear policies on how force should be used, nor any recorded data on how often force is used – a disturbing finding given how many police are guarding our nation’s classrooms.

2. Reforming Policies that Contribute to High Dropout Rates: While many of the reasons why students drop out of school are difficult to remedy, some of the factors that contribute to low graduation rates could be addressed through changes to current state policy. One example specific to Texas: by amending the current method used by the State Board of Education in establishing school curriculum, the Texas Legislature could depoliticize the process of selecting standards and better ensure that subject requirements are accurate and culturally suitable for all students. Relevant, educationally appropriate curriculum is a key to engaging students and reducing dropout. Because current curriculum adoption practices allow the SBOE to sacrifice relevant curriculum for ideological purposes, I recently delivered a report on this topic to numerous legislative staff at the Capitol in hopes of fostering support for a bill next session that would bring forth needed change to the SBOE and to the process of determining what is taught in classrooms across the state.

A second policy in need of clear revision: Texas’ law regarding truancy for students 18 or older. Unlike in any other state in the nation, students in Texas who are over 17 and still striving towards their high school diploma can be prosecuted for truancy for too many class absences. Many older students are balancing work or family commitments that can conflict with school, and facing court fees and jail time for truancy only increases the odds that they will drop out before reaching graduation. Part of my internship has been learning about detrimental laws such as this and identifying ways the ACLU can advocate for appropriate policy changes in the 2011 Legislative Session.

As I work to address these school-to-prison pipeline issues, I’m particularly looking forward to this weekend when our Austin office will host the ACLU of Texas’ annual conference. This year the entire meeting is dedicated to youth rights in school discipline and many of the juvenile justice issues that I’ve been working on this summer. It should be an inspiring gathering of people who share my concern for the education and criminal justice systems, and I look forward to sharing more soon about the exciting conversations that will take place!

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About emilyling

A little background about myself and how I ended up interning at the ACLU this summer:  I grew up in Lorena, Texas – a really small town south of Waco.  I attended Baylor University for my undergrad degree, earning a Bachelors in Sociology in 2004, with somewhat of a concentration on poverty issues. Figuring that the best way to learn about poverty was to experience it first-hand, I joined an urban ministry called Mission Year and moved with some friends into the inner-city of Atlanta. That year I  volunteered with Communities in Schools and coached basketball in a struggling urban high school, and also did some criminal defense investigation for death penalty cases. Those experiences forever changed my perspective on the education and criminal justice systems in our country, and spurred a desire to somehow fight to make those systems more effective, more just, and more beneficial to society. After a year in Atlanta, I spent the next few years testing the waters of other interests I had as well. This included time spent tutoring at-risk youth, doing disaster relief work in post-Katrina New Orleans, serving as a case manager with AmeriCorps, and taking a few short-term trips to Haiti, Mexico, and Sudan. Though I loved all of my experience on the “front-lines” of different fields of non-profit work, in every situation I found myself frustrated with poor policy and the detrimental effects it had on the people I was trying to serve. So in the fall of 2009, I began seeking my Masters in Public Affairs degree at the University of Texas in Austin – hoping that perhaps in learning more about the field of public policy that I may be able to influence it for the good. Harkening back to my experiences in Atlanta, I’ve thus far focused my main concentration on the policy areas of education and criminal justice. In looking for my summer internship, I was hoping to find an placement that somehow combined both, and was fortunate to find just such an opportunity with the ACLU -- which I’m looking forward to sharing about through this blog. In addition to school & policy work, I also moonlight as a barista in a downtown Austin bar. Enjoying great live music with friends (especially jazz), hitting the running trails around Town Lake, soaking up the beauty of nature, & discovering good cheap wines are all top ways for how I’m likely to spend what little down-time grad school affords :)

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