J.C. Gonzalez (Vice President / Branch Manager II at Wells Fargo), MSC Class of 15-16, opened our March corporate meeting by sharing his current experience of running for Mayor of Irving and answered questions from the current class.

We learned from an exceptional panel about the school-to-prison pipeline issue we have in many communities across the nation. Our panel was comprised of Sara Mokuria (Associate Director for Leadership Initiatives, The Institute for Urban Policy Research at the University of Texas at Dallas), Courtney Egelston (Assistant Principal, Innovation, Design, Entrepreneurship Academy), Kristin Algier (Director, Uplift Heights Primary), Solomon Adair (Dean of Scholars, Uplift Grand Prep), Hon. Amber Givens-Davis (282nd Judicial Court), Terry S. Smith, Ph.D. (Executive Director, Dallas County Juvenile Department), and Allison Brim (Education Campaign Director, Texas Organizing Project).

The purpose of this gathering was for the Mayor’s Star Council to hear from those dealing with this challenge on professional and judiciary levels to learn the causes of this harmful dynamic, and the strategies for keeping children in the classroom and away from courtrooms.

Sarah Mokuria observed that the war on drugs and zero tolerance policy has led to the growth of the school-to-prison pipeline. The presence of law enforcement in schools has caused a change in dealing with misbehaviors. Since the early 1990’s, punishments for infractions in school began to be characterized as criminal behavior which was dealt with in the courtroom rather than inside the school. Today, we spend more money on those in prison ($30,000/year) than children in schools in Texas ($10,000/year).

The conundrum here is to address the definition of discipline. One opinion is that discipline is meant to be instructional, not castigatory. Sadly, many of our children are victims of punitive discretionary disciplinary practices with the goal of control over them rather than support of their healthy learning development. The tendency of this disciplinary approach is to force conformity through sanctions and fear. This is an inappropriate practice not conducive to a learning environment. However, this is a practice that has made its way into our educational institutions and is a primary cause for assigning character-criminalizing labels to children. These labels are based on the criminalization of behaviors and actions that are not criminal in nature (e.g. truancy) and have put many students in the system as criminals.

The argument here is not not to sanction misbehavior, but to differentiate between criminality, inherent disabilities, and plain bad choices. Criminality implies an intentional choice to break the law, to cause harm, and do evil, while bad choices are made out of a misinformed position. Both have consequences, but should not be dealt as if they were the same. Criminals are a threat to others. Troubled children are in need of help.

Hence, the issue with criminalizing discipline is that it causes students to face sanctions that become stumbling blocks in their future advancement and opportunities. The system as it stands today is, in many cases, in opposition to providing assistance to improving the wellbeing and development to many of our children.

This is one of the primary causes of the school-to-prison pipeline in present reality. In the last few years, this has become a national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. As noted by the ACLU, “Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished, and pushed out.” (ACLU.org)

The fact is that the criminalization of minor offenses of school rules is hurting our children, robbing them of their future and making them accessories to populate jails. The inability (or unwillingness) of our schools to handle misbehavior of children by just sending them out to the courtroom must be challenged. Children should be educated, not incarcerated.

A question that was raised during our time together in our corporate meeting to bring light to the dynamics that are behind what appears to be a broken system had to do with mandatory discipline vs. discretionary discipline. The panel was asked about observing others dealing with discretionary issues at schools. Kristin Algier, Director of the Uplift Heights Primary, offered the following insight, “Response is different for Primary, Middle, and High [School]. At primary level, we try to treat them with compassion and understanding as opposed to criminality. Promoting a positive environment is crucial to building a learning environment of respect and personal growth.” Other panelists emphasized the critical need for restorative practices where faculty, staff, parents, and children engage in discussing the issues together before they boil over and are sanctioned in ways that begin to mark our children as juvenile criminals.

In light of these learnings, we realized that we must work together to repair the harm caused by punitive and criminalizing disciplines that are sending our children away from learning centers and into the path of incarceration.

It is a fact that many of our schools are not set up to work well with children with challenging behaviors and disabilities, especially hidden disabilities such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And, as a result, these children become targets of increased discretionary discipline, increasing exponentially the chances of them dropping out of school. If the school is an environment of punishment, why would they even try to stay there? The end for many of these kids is to be underemployed; a greater risk for incarceration.

Our job is to keep our children and young people from being criminalized for behaviors that speak more about our failing to them, rather than a criminal character in them. Kids of 10-17 years old do not belong in the criminal record system; they need nurturing.

The players that need to come together and tag-team to find solutions to this issue are the principals, teachers, staff, parents, students, and the larger community.

Clearly, there is a need of self-giving individuals of good moral character willing to pour themselves into the most vulnerable of those amongst us. By doing this we are taking responsibility in our city, with our people.