Journal of Educational Controversy


Sunday, February 24, 2013

The School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Civil Rights and a Civil Liberty Issue

The School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Civil Rights and a Civil Liberty Issue

An Editorial Preview of Upcoming Issue

The School-to-Prison Pipeline stands as a direct contradiction to the vision of the public school as an institution for promoting and sustaining a democratic republic. Each year thousands of students are funneled through the public schools into the juvenile justice system as a result of school policies and practices that increasingly criminalize students rather than educate them. Most are students of color, students with disabilities, and students from impoverished neighborhoods. How and why this is happening is the focus of this issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy.

Research indicates that both the number of school suspensions and expulsions have increased dramatically as well as the kind of behaviors and infractions that result in suspensions and expulsions. Data from the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights indicate that over three million students are suspended and over 100,000 students are expelled each year. 1 This rate has almost doubled in the past thirty years. Research also shows a relationship among expulsions, suspensions and school dropouts and subsequent involvement in the juvenile justice system. According to national figures, “high school dropouts are three and one-half times more likely than high school graduates to be arrested, and more than eight times as likely to be incarcerated.”2

Zero-tolerance policies, the overuse of school discipline and juvenile court referrals, exclusionary discipline policies, excessive policing in schools, the criminalization of disability-related behaviors, and pressures and abuse from the high-stakes testing environment are often cited as contributing factors. Together these policies and practices have resulted in the violation of three of our most basic democratic principles:

1. Right to an Education

2. Right to Non-Discrimination

3. Right to Due Process

The disruptions and denial of education as a result of suspensions, expulsions and exclusionary disciplinary policies have threatened the right to an education, especially when students are given indefinite expulsions without recourse to an alternative education route. The disproportionate impact on different student populations, especially on students of color and students with disabilities and emotional problems, has resulted in discriminatory treatment. And the process that often funnels students from the public school into the juvenile justice system often violates fundamental due process procedures. Most important, if the philosopher and educator, John Dewey, was correct in his theory that children learn what they experience, what are these school policies and practices teaching our children about the fundamental principles of our democracy?

A reconstructed example illustrates all three violations. A young student of color in an urban school in an impoverished neighborhood is confronted by a police resource officer in the hallway. Suddenly the young student finds himself in handcuffs and arrested for speaking back and for defiant and disrespectful behavior. Infractions that would have been treated as a school disciplinary incident have now become a criminal act. This often results when the concepts of school discipline and criminal acts are not clearly defined in a school policy, and the role of school administrators and police resource officers are not clearly distinguished. The role of police is to ensure safety and stop criminal acts, not to discipline students for breaking school rules. Are these misunderstandings that result in criminal arrest due to a lack in the training of school resource officers in cultural differences and a failure to understand the special needs of adolescent development? How aware is the student of his or her rights to due process at this point. How will this experience lead to school alienation and future dropout? What has this incident taught the student about our democratic principles? The complexity of any specific incident has led many authors in our issue to talk about a “persistent nexus or a web of intertwined, punitive threads” rather than a simple pipeline that our young people get caught up in.3

The purpose of this issue of the journal is to bring awareness and understanding to this complex nexus of events. The issue is going online at a very opportune moment. The United States Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held its first ever hearing on the school-to-prison pipeline on December 12, 2012, an event that brought national attention to the problem. In this issue, our authors complement the testimony that was given at the hearing with a deeper, multidimensional analysis.

The following controversy was posed for authors to address:

The School to Prison Pipeline refers to a national trend in which school policies and practices are increasingly resulting in criminalizing students rather than educating them. Statistics indicate that the number of suspensions, expulsions, dropouts or “pushouts,” and juvenile justice confinements is growing. Moreover, there is a disproportionate impact on students of color and students with disabilities and emotional problems. In this issue, we invite authors to examine the policy implications, the political ramifications, and the causes and possible solutions to this problem. Moreover, what are these policies teaching our children?

There are five different sections.

Section 1 includes authors’ responses to the controversy itself and covers multiple perspectives and dimensions of the problem.

Section 2 looks at other related pipelines like the “School to Deportation” Pipeline.

Section 3, entitled, “From Theory To Activism: Perspectives from Youth Advocacy Groups In Washington State,” brings together a description of the activism and recommendations by groups in the trenches who have been trying to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. The groups include the Center for Children and Youth Justice, Team Child, the League of Education Voters and the Washington State Education Ombudsman, an office that may be the first of its kind in the nation.

Section 4 provides the reader with a video of an interview with one of our authors. Justice Bobbe Bridge, former justice of the Washington State Supreme Court, who started the Center for Children and Youth Justice, discusses a more proactive approach that the courts can use to reach young people who are truant and disengaged from the school before they enter the school-to-prison pipeline. We have also inserted a video from an earlier forum that the journal sponsored in which Rose Spidell, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, talks about the cases that have come to the ACLU and the actions that were taken. In the near future, we will put online other video interviews with our authors. The videos can be accessed by clicking on the “Authors Talk” link on the journal’s menu.

We finally conclude in Section 5 with three book reviews on the subject.

I want to thank my guest co-editor, Daniel Larner, for all his work in helping to conceptualize this issue and select the included papers from our many submissions. Dan is a professor at the Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies at Western Washington University and has been a longtime member of the ACLU Board of Directors in Washington State. In addition to his courses in theatre arts, Dan also teaches courses in civil liberties at the college. His editorial reflects his own unique perspective on this topic from a lifetime devoted to promoting civil liberties and teaching young people to understand the meanings and significance of these cornerstones of our democracy. Readers can read an earlier article by Dan that was published in the Winter 2010 issue of the journal, entitled, “Educating Politicians as Playwrights: Toward a Sustainable World in Creative Conflict.”

1Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection, available at

2Bridge, B.J., Curtis, L.E., Oakley,N., “No Single Source, No Simple Solution: Why We Should Broaden Our Perspective of the School-to-Prison-Pipeline and Look to the Court in Redirecting Youth from It,” Journal of Educational Controversy, Fall 2012/Winter2013.

3Gebhard, A., “Schools, Prisons and Aboriginal Youth: Making Connections,” Journal of Educational Controversy, Fall 2012/Winter2013.

Friday, February 8, 2013

A Look at Today’s Immigration Policy Debate within the Context of U.S. Immigration Legislative History

Editor: As we mentioned in our earlier post, we have supplemented our upcoming issue on the school-to-prison pipeline with a section on the school-to-deportation pipeline. Warren Blumenfeld, Associate Professor at Iowa State University, has just published the article below on the Education Liberation Listserv and has given his permission to circulate it. In his article, Professor Blumenfeld helps us to see the current debate within a larger context of U.S. immigration legislative history.

Immigration and Racism

By Warren Blumenfeld

Ohio State University

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free;

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless,

Tempest-tossed to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!...”

Like the noble words from Emma Lazarus’s sonnet “The New Colossus” engraved on a bronze plague affixed to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, these sentiments express a foundational tenet on which the United States itself stands. In direct contradiction to this sentiment, however, immigration policy has not lived up to these guiding principles, based instead on essentialist and stereotypical notions of race, ethnicity, and religion.

In the current national debates over immigration reform, in its January 30, 2013 editorial, for example, the conservative National Review referred to “Hispanics” as “hostile to free enterprise,” and “[t]hey are disproportionately low-income and disproportionately likely to receive some form of government support. More than half of Hispanic births are out of wedlock.”

These racially- and ethnically-charged representations of minoritized people perpetuate a long and dishonorable tradition of preventing “the huddled masses to breathe free.”

We need to keep in mind that the notion of “race” is socially constructed. The concept of “race” arose concurrently with the advent of European exploration as a justification and rationale for conquest and domination of the globe beginning around the 15th century of the Common Era. Though “race” is a human-imposed invention, however, its implications have far reaching consequences impacting individuals and groups in profound ways.

While given the option of living in peaceful co-existence, European invaders stepped upon this land guided by the conviction that Providence destined them to expand from Atlantic to Pacific (from “sea to shining sea”) led by the so-called Anglo-Saxon “race.” This they used as justification in their unquenchable thirst for land ultimately resulting in their forced removal and physical and cultural genocide of indigenous peoples, and an unjustified imperialist-inspired war with Mexico.

“This continent,” a congressman declared, “was intended by Providence as a vast theatre on which to work out the grand experiment of Republican government, under the auspices of the Anglo-Saxon race” (quoted in Takaki, 1993, p. 176).

The Puritans fled England for the “New World” to practice their “Purer” form of Christianity, believing God had chosen them to form “a biblical commonwealth,” which would not tolerate any separation of “church and state,” or, indeed, any religious beliefs outside their own.

The newly constituted United States Congress passed the Naturalization Act in 1790 excluding all nonwhites from citizenship, including Asians, enslaved Africans, and American Indians, the latter whom they defined in oxymoronic terms as “domestic foreigners,” even though they had inhabited this land for an estimated 35,000 years. The Congress refused to grant American Indians rights of citizenship until 1924 with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act, though it continued to deny Asians naturalized citizenship status.

Protestant American “Nativist” prejudices against Irish Catholics escalated in the mid-1850s when the so-called “Know Nothing” movement attempted to prevent Catholics from ascending to public office. After 1860, Irish were met with “HELP WANTED: IRISH NEED NOT APPLY” signs hanging in store windows.

Congress passed the first law specifically restricting or excluding immigrants on the basis of “race” and nationality in 1882. Attempting to eliminate entry of Chinese (and other Asian) workers who often competed for jobs with U.S. citizens, especially in the western United States, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to constrict their entry into the U.S. for a 10-year period, while denying citizenship to Chinese people already on these shores. The Act also made it illegal for Chinese people to marry white or black U.S.-Americans.

The editor of a newspaper in Butte, Montana summarized the exclusionist sentiment regarding the Chinese held by many U.S. citizens: “The Chinaman’s life is not our life, his religion is not our religion….He belongs not in Butte” (Swartout, 1992, p. 78).

The Immigration Act of 1917 further prohibited immigration from Asian countries, in the terms of the law, the “barred zone,” including parts of China, India, Siam, Burma, Asiatic Russian, the Polynesian Islands, and parts of Afghanistan.

Fearing a continued influx of immigrants, legislators in the U.S. Congress in 1924 enacted an anti-immigration law (Origins Quota Act, or National Origins Act) setting restrictive quotas of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, specifically Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Slaves (so-called “PIGS” groups viewed as representing Europe’s lower “races”), including Jews (the later referred to as members of the so-called “Hebrew race,” considered the lowest of all the European “races”). The law, however, permitted large allocations of immigrants from Great Britain and Germany.

In addition, the law included a clause prohibiting entry of “aliens ineligible to citizenship,” which was veiled language referring to Japanese and other Asians dating back to the Naturalization Act of 1790 restricting citizenship to only “white” people and affirmed by a 1922 U. S. Supreme Court ruling (Takao Ozawa v United States) in which the government denied Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant, the right to become a naturalized citizen because he “clearly” was “not Caucasian.”

Congress, in 1939, refused to pass an emergency measure, the Wagner-Rogers Act, which would have permitted entry of 20,000 children, primarily Jewish, from Eastern Europe over existing quotas. According to Laura Deleno Houghteling, cousin of F.D.R. and wife of the U.S. commissioner of immigration, who spoke out against the proposed legislation: “20,000 charming children would, all too soon, grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”

The 1952 the McCarran-Walters Act overturned the 1924 law. Later, framed as an amendment to McCarran-Walters, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 removed “natural origins” as the basis for U.S. immigration. The 1965 law increased immigration from Asian and Latin American countries and religious backgrounds.

Horace Kallen, a Jewish immigrant and sociologist of Polish and Latvian heritage coined the term “cultural pluralism” to challenge the image of the so-called “melting pot,” which he considered inherently undemocratic. Kallen envisioned a United States in the image of a great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison (the “melting pot”), but rather, one in which all the disparate cultures play in harmony and retain their unique and distinctive tones and timbres.

Returning to today, if we learn anything from our immigration legislative history, we can view the current debates as providing a great opportunity to pass comprehensive federal reform based not on “race,” nationality, ethnicity, religion, or other social identity categories, but rather, on humane principles of fairness, compassion, and equity. We have a wonderful chance now to avoid the mistakes of the past and finally to “lift [the] lamp beside the golden door!”


Swartout, R. R., Jr. (1992). From Kwangtung to the big sky: The Chinese experience in frontier Montana. In R. R. Swartout, Jr. & H. W. Fritz (Eds.), Montana heritage: An anthology of historical essays (pp. 63-82). Helena: Montana Historical Society.

Takaki, R. (1993). A different mirror: A history of multicultural America. Boston: Little Brown.

Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

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