DeVos Is Set to Reinvigorate the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Perhaps you remember the stories. But in case you’ve forgotten, Carimah Townes offers a reminder.

An eighth grader was locked up for throwing skittles on a schoolbus. A 6-year-old girl was handcuffed for taking candy from a teacher’s desk. An officer slammed and dragged a high school girl, because she wouldn’t put her phone down. A Texas cop choked a 14-year-old boy over a shoving match in school. A middle school student was suspended and charged for allegedly stealing a carton of milk from a cafeteria — even though he didn’t do it.

There was a time when we were hearing these stories on a regular basis. The problem wasn’t that students were being disciplined for bad behavior — it was that teachers and other school personnel were increasingly turning that job over to law enforcement rather than handling it themselves. The problem was particularly acute for students of color — especially black boys who are criminalized from a very early age. That is what led to the creation of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Demonstrating how oblivious she is to what some have called the civil rights issue of our time, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said that she couldn’t think of any civil rights issues in education that would necessitate federal intervention. Then DeVos hired Candice Jackson to be the acting head of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights — someone who once claimed that she had experienced discrimination because she is white.

The pivotal role played by the person in that position was demonstrated by the change that occurred from the George W. Bush administration to the Obama years. The Office for Civil Rights quit the long-standing practice of requiring school districts to report data on achievement and disciplinary measures by race under Bush. Obama reinstated the requirement.

As a result of that reversal, the Departments of Education and Justice set out to do something about the overwhelming disparities in the data on school discipline and suspension, even for students in pre-school. For example, DOE’s Civil Rights Division began investigating school districts with significant disparities in their school discipline practices. And DOJ filed suit against the school district in Meridian, MS for some of the most egregious practices in the country, leading to a consent decree. That was followed by guidelines released to school districts from the Departments of Education and Justice on ending the school-to-prison pipeline. The result of highlighting the issue was that even the Senate held a hearing on the topic.

During her confirmation hearing, DeVos refused to commit to collecting data on civil rights matters and it is clear that AG Sessions will have no problem with police officers criminalizing the behavior of students in school. As we’ve seen in the past, this will disproportionately impact students of color, and will be another way that the Trump administration criminalizes black and brown bodies, starting at a very early age.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.