How to start ending the school-to-prison pipeline — by an educator just elected to the U.S. House


Biden’s choice for education secretary, Miguel Cardona, the state superintendent of Connecticut, goes before a Senate committee on Wednesday for his confirmation hearing, and is expected to be approved by the full Senate.

Bowman addresses his comments to Cardona as well as to his legislative colleagues, writing: “We can no longer watch children be brutalized on school grounds and wait for justice while we have the policy tools to legislate it.”

By Jamaal Bowman

Last week, a video surfaced of a Black 16-year-old girl being slammed to the floor by a cop at Liberty High School in Osceola County, Fla. The girl appeared to be knocked unconscious and her parents have reported that she is suffering from memory loss.

This tragic and violent incident is not uncommon. Today, it must be the work of the federal government to disrupt violence and unjust punishment in schools. As a father of a young girl, a lifelong educator, and now a member of Congress, I say to my colleagues and to President Biden’s nominee for secretary of education, Miguel Cardona: Now is the time for the U.S. Department of Education to aggressively work to end the school-to-prison pipeline.

Cardona is well-positioned to do this if he is confirmed. As the first Latinx person nominated for secretary of education, Cardona is a welcome change from Betsy DeVos’s disastrous tenure steering the Education Department, with racial justice a key focus of his career in education. His mandate now is clear: We can no longer watch children be brutalized on school grounds and wait for justice while we have the policy tools to legislate it.

The school-to-prison pipeline — the disproportionality that exists in handing out school discipline in schools to Black and Brown students for simple infractions — pushes kids out of classrooms and into our ever-growing system of mass incarceration.

When a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, person of color) child makes a mistake or is rambunctious — as all children are — they are often demonized, humiliated and marginalized through discipline practices that are rooted in racism. Institutional biases mark these students as problems to be handled rather than children to be nurtured; thus, a vicious cycle of punishment ensues.

Growing up and attending schools in this atmosphere, I experienced these biases as a Black boy in schools. I was suspended and discarded. I was told to go to hell by administrators. I was placed in classes far beneath my intelligence. I even had a teacher tell me my life was ruined.

Ending the school-to-prison pipeline is not a small task and requires detangling the myth of white superiority from our entire education system. But there are many places to start.

First, we must teach BIPOC history and culture in our schools, so that children can learn the global contributions of BIPOC people and our BIPOC kids can feel empowered. The majority of public school teachers are White; we must recruit, train and retain more teachers of color, and train all teachers using an anti-racist curriculum.

We must hire more social workers and counselors in our schools than police officers. Reallocating funding from school policing to hiring mental health professionals throughout the public school system would benefit both academic performance and school safety. Police officers are not trained in empathy and compassion, which is exactly what developing children need.

At the Bronx middle school I founded and served as principal, we had one counselor for every 66 students. It is no wonder we were consistently rated as having one of the best learning environments in New York City.

Further, we can implement restorative justice practices in our schools. If a child commits harm against the community, let’s do the work of helping that child understand the harm that was done. Instead of dismissing and suspending, use mistakes as opportunities for the entire school community to learn and grow.

We also must establish healthy social and emotional relationships with students through the Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Curriculum, and implement a holistic, interdisciplinary curriculum that includes play, music, the arts, sports and collaboration. When children are engaged in deep, vigorous learning that activates their entire brain, they will do everything to uplift their school environment.

With the reauthorization of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2021, a new secretary of education, and Democratic control of the Senate, House, and the White House, we have an opportunity that we must seize to make progress on this issue and protect children. It’s time for the Education Department to focus on ending the school-to-prison pipeline. I look forward to working with the new education secretary to do just that.



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