DETROIT — “The most critical civil rights issue of our day” — the school-to-prison pipeline — drew lawyers, educators and the public to Wayne State University Law School March 25.
“What is the school-to- prison pipeline?” asked keynote speaker Damon T. Hewitt, director of education practice, NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “You can’t define it, you can only frame it. It may look different from school to school.
“It is not just a school district issue, it is a civil rights and racial justice issue. It is not a juvenile issue, it is a criminal justice issue. At the base, the pipeline is an education issue,” he said.
“You can’t fix it without fixing what is going on in education. What bugs me, it continues to escalate.”
As evidence, Hewitt said in 1970 there were 1.7 million students suspended per year. That figure has doubled to 3.8 million annual suspensions.
“It is not student behavior,” Hewitt said, “it is our response to that behavior.’”
As he stressed throughout the talk, it is a human response, so it can be changed.
Hewitt explained the history of the current intolerance and punitive attitude existing both on the streets and in the schools. In the schools, the post-Columbine era saw the introduction of federal and state ordinances leading to zero tolerance policies. In the streets, the war on drugs saw “our response go overboard,” Hewitt said.
While some would say the nation is in a post-racial era, Hewitt says, racial disparities mark the rate of incarceration and school suspensions.