Michael Brown was beating the odds. He made it through the minefield that can be the public education system in America; he graduated from Normandy High; he had no criminal record; and he was poised to enter technical school to learn a trade. So why was he buried last week after dying at the hands of law enforcement?
To understand Michael’s tragic death, we have to understand the school-to-prison pipeline and its trajectory.
Early life: Like Michael, many black males across this nation grow up in communities like Ferguson, where they are educationally, economically and politically marginalized. Over 45 percent of Missouri’s black children live in poverty. And, as President Obama remarked in his response to Michael’s shooting, disparities for black males like Michael begin early; according to recent statistics released by the Department of Education, black children comprise 18 percent of preschoolers nationwide, but 48 percent of those receiving out-of-school suspensions. Every day in America, 16,244 public school students are expelled, and 6,191 of those are black. Research shows that such disparate discipline is rooted in implicit bias.
Elementary/middle school: At this stage, Michael managed to not have a criminal record or involvement with law enforcement. He beat the odds for early involvement in the juvenile justice system; Department of Education data show that, while black students only comprise 16 percent of student enrollment nationwide, they are 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement, and 31 percent of students subjected to a school-related arrest.
High school: By receiving his high school degree on Aug. 1, Michael, again, beat the odds; he did not join the estimated 52 percent of black males nationwide or Missouri’s 56 percent who did not receive a high school diploma. Poised to enter Vatterott College, Michael seemed to have circumvented the school-to-prison pipeline.
But the tragic fact is that he did not — and this is why: The same implicit bias that criminalizes black males, resulting in overly punitive and exclusionary discipline practices, was rampant in theFerguson Police Department and played out in Ferguson’s streets in documented confrontations between its black citizens and law enforcement. A recent study surveying white police officers’ views of black male youth found that white officers overwhelmingly believed that young black males were “less innocent” and “less worthy” of protection than their white peers.
So, when Michael encountered the Ferguson police officer, he was criminalized before he ever reportedly put his hands up to show he was unarmed.
Discipline should be used to guide and teach, not push out and stigmatize. We need a paradigm shift in our nation’s schools that contextualizes discipline within learning and education — it is central to, not a distraction from, teaching. Our schools must invest in and implement alternatives to overly punitive discipline practices, like those detailed in the historic joint Department of Education and Department of Justice Discipline Guidance, such as: restorative justice, social and emotional learning, and positive behavioral interventions and supports. Most importantly, we must acknowledge and address the role that implicit bias plays in discretionary disciplinary decisions.
Whether it is in our schools or in our streets, unless we act to address and remedy implicit bias, black youth — particularly black males — will continue to be the casualties of the school-to-prison pipeline.
Janel George is education policy counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc