Becoming Agents of Change for Incarcerated Youth:
Superintendents Working to Disrupt the School-to-Prison Pipeline
by Jacqueline Young, Larry Leverett, and Rachel Roegman
The school-to-prison pipeline represents a crisis in the education of youth in the United States, as children, primarily African American and Latino, male, poor, and/or receiving special education services, are funneled out of their schools and into the criminal justice system. Students are mislabeled or misdiagnosed; students are suspended or expelled for subjective reasons; police officers have taken the place of administrators in handling school discipline; and low-performing students are encouraged to drop out to keep test scores high. These practices funnel students out of their classrooms and onto the pipeline to incarceration.
Some students are incarcerated prior to graduation, completing part or all of their high school education at schools within juvenile detention centers. This leads to two interrelated problems in K-12 school systems: the education of youth incarcerated in detention centers, and the pipeline in schools that leads to disproportionate numbers of Black and Latino males that end up there.
The reality of the day-to-day role of the superintendency demands that superintendents focus on immediate issues of running a complex organization; attending to individual students who committed crimes and are entering the juvenile justice system is not high on their priority list. As a result, the school-to-prison pipeline does not receive the attention or advocacy of most district leaders. Instead, children caught in the web of the juvenile justice system, often from communities with high concentrations of poverty, economic and social disadvantage, and distressed neighborhoods, are neglected by indifference from their districts’central offices.
What would happen if a group of superintendents spent a day inside of the juvenile justice system? What would they learn from the children whom they met and the instruction they observed? How might they use their role as district leader to do their part in disrupting the pipeline? How could they provide each other with the pressure and support needed to engage in the difficult work around supporting students whom the rest of society so easily ignore? To explore these questions, Dr. Jacqueline Young, then principal of Sojourn High School and superintendent of the Essex Regional Educational Services Commission (ERESC), invited the New Jersey Network of Superintendents (the network), a group of district leaders from rural, urban, and suburban districts across the state, to visit Sojourn High School, an ERESC school within the Essex County Juvenile Detention Center in Newark, NJ. Sponsored by the Panasonic Foundation, network members regularly visited each other’s buildings; Dr. Young wanted her network colleagues to have the opportunity to meet incarcerated youth, experience firsthand the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline on young lives, and reflect on and change the practices in their home districts that sent students to jails.
This article unfolds in three parts. First, Dr. Young shares her background and beliefs and then explains her decision to invite her colleagues to visit Sojourn High School. Then, network members reflect on the visit in a collective voice, sharing some of the strategies they are adopting as a result. Next, Larry Leverett, a former superintendent in New Jersey and Connecticut, and then serving as Executive Director of the Panasonic Foundation and responsible for the creation of the network, discusses implications of the visit and the reality of the school-to-prison pipeline for superintendents. Finally, we conclude as a collective voice with a call to action.
The Invitation from Dr. Young:
I began teaching in a traditional district, and I never thought I would end up working with the incarcerated youth that I’m working with here at Sojourn High School, a school that educates youth who are awaiting trial. Most of the 105 students are Black males from Newark and neighboring areas. I know that even if they’ve done something wrong, with the proper guidance, direction, and shifts in their home schools, they could get on the right track. They need someone to really be there for them, to help them. At Sojourn, we make these kids feel like they’re human beings. We do amazing things with these kids.
I wanted to invite my colleagues from the New Jersey Network of Superintendents to meet my students, see the teaching and learning that actually goes on at Sojourn and what educational inequity really is. They need to see these boys, who are their districts’ throw-aways. These are the kids who make teachers happy when they are absent. The superintendents need to see that places like this exist and that for some of our students, this is their last chance at a high school diploma. When they visit my building and meet my students, I ask them:
- How do our kids feel coming to this school?
- How do we make sure that they don’t feel that they are the rejects when they are get out?
- Why do our kids experience more academic success in this setting than in their districts?
The Visit: Reflections from Members of the New Jersey Network of Superintendents
As we were asked, we make sure to leave our cell phones and tablets behind, only taking in notebooks and pens. We walk through the metal detectors, the door locks behind us, and we wait in a small room for the second door to open, letting us into the detention center. Sounds clang around the gray walls surrounding us, and we are now cut off from the world, imprisoned. But in spite of the corrections officers escorting us, the intensely institutional walls and passageways and rooms, and the lack of access to our phones that are the lifelines to our jobs back home…we are in school, like any other school: students are listening, or writing, or solving math problems, or asking questions.
When we were talking to the students in Sojourn High School, I couldn’t help asking myself, how did we lose this kid? How do our systems lose kids like the ones we met?
The hopes and dreams of the young men I met today are as real and important as any student I have met.
The problems snowball from very early on as we discipline and treat some children differently. Black boys don’t have predisposition to crime.
I’m learning to explore further when I’m uncomfortable, and it can be overwhelming. One of my schools, some kids were struggling with school. They were all Black boys. They got sent home for the day. And they never came back. I venture to guess that many of the kids we see as victims of the system have experienced multiple traumas. These are children failed by society. Meeting these children in this school was powerful – my challenge as a superintendent is so layered in not losing children. It seems we have so much work to do along this path.
My takeaway is thinking about how we treat these students when they come back to our schools, and how we need to help these students reintegrate, not just send them away until they get the right paperwork.
All lives matter and it’s our job to make sure systems, people, and leaders do the work to allow for that self-evident statement to ring true. Yes, all lives matter, but we seem to have forgotten that Black and Brown are part of the “all”, so we need to say so explicitly
Since the visit, superintendents from the network have taken a range of steps in the direction of dismantling the pipeline. These include:
- Analyzing district discipline data through the lens of disproportionality, using tools shared by network speaker, Edward Fergus;
- Reviewing and revising discipline policies within their high schools;
- Conducting focus groups with students to better understand their perspectives on school discipline;
- Identifying and addressing disproportionality in student classification for special education services based on students’ race/ethnicity, one of the central goals of the federal Office of Civil Rights;
- Addressing issues of school climate and teachers’ mindsets that lead to different responses to the same behavior based on students’ racial and ethnic background.
The Need for Equity-Focused Leadership: Implications from the Visit for District Administrators from Dr. Leverett
Within the responsibility of schools, superintendents, and districts, much can be done to disrupt the cycle of incarceration and recidivism. The truth is that we as a country have not demonstrated the will to break the chain of factors that increase the probability of children entering or returning to the broken juvenile “injustice” system. It is within the power and authority of school districts to change the life direction for children trapped in settings not invested in their success, and we must fulfill this responsibility.
The young men we met at Sojourn communicated the many ways that schools failed to provide supports necessary to engage them in learning, and they showed us how the systems of support, care, and rehabilitation of incarcerated children are horrendously broken. To end mass incarceration of youth, districts must work systematically and consistently to eliminate malpractice, bad practice, and bad policies in three key areas: prevention, periods of incarceration, and reentry.
Prevention We know many of the risk factors that require early intervention, such as mental illness, chronic absenteeism, and abuse. Failure to address these factors early on increases the probability of incarceration later. We need to make sure the children with the greatest need get the best teachers and we need to make sure we are meeting their learning needs. Districts need mentoring programs, social and emotional curriculum, restorative justice polices, professional development strategies to build teacher and student efficacy, and aggressive efforts to promote academic success. We can’t just ignore it when kids are behind, and we can’t just suspend, expel, or refer kids away.
Periods of Incarceration Too often, when students are incarcerated, we as superintendents write off our responsibility for their academic and social development. They are “out of sight, out of mind”. These students need to be visible to the schools and communities they will return to, and they need to know that even when incarcerated, they are part of a community that wants them to succeed. Collaborative planning for their return is critical to reducing further school failure.
Reentry Schools have to step up to their efforts to engage young men and women coming out of detention centers instead of demanding students complete paperwork and other forms of bureaucratic red tape. Practices that fail to embrace students after incarceration simply increase the probability of future failure and repeated incarceration. The involvement of school personnel (guidance counselors, child study team members) with juvenile probation officers, mental health agencies, child welfare agencies, and community-based organizations is essential. The web of individuals should ensure that each youth is surrounded by a comprehensive array of wrap-around supports. This web sends a message to children that they are welcome members of a learning community.
Reflecting on these three areas, Dr. Laurie Newell, the superintendent who succeeded Dr. Young upon her retirement, has brought increased attention to schools’ responsibilities to meet students’ needs as whole people. “We have to bring all of what society has given us to support our youth. We can’t leave any of that at the door; we have to address our students’ needs.” Addressing students’ needs with preventative programming, throughout incarceration, and when they return to their districts, Dr. Newell argues, supports the district in advancing its goal of ensuring that “all students develop competence and confidence as learners” who are prepared for college, career, and productive citizenship. Building off of Dr. Young’s work, she continues to emphasize equity and inclusion at all of ERESC schools, which specifically serve adjudicated youth, classified youth, and youth who were expelled from their home districts. Part of this work, Dr. Newell acknowledges, involves changing the mindsets of educators: “These kids are not losers, these kids have value, and it is our job to pull the very best out of them. We ALL must believe that and internalize that.”
Helping School Leaders to Make “All” Mean “All”
Mass incarceration is a major statement of a society that accepts the disposable nature of children, especially Black and Latino boys. We, as leaders of districts, must own the responsibility to eliminate the conditions within our systems that put so many youth on the pipeline to prison. Do we have the will to overcome the barriers faced by children who are poor, Black, Brown, socially isolated, and/or living in distressed conditions? Unfortunately, the over 35,000 incarcerated youth in juvenile facilities, and the almost 6000 incarcerated youth in adult facilities, tell us that we have not yet found the will to do so. We hope that our reflections serve as a call for school leaders to find communities of pressure and support that enable them to be agents of change for students in their schools and districts.
About the authors:
Jacqueline Young served as superintendent of the Essex Regional Educational Services Commission, in Essex County, New Jersey, from 1992 through her retirement in 2016. Dr. Young began her career as an elementary school teacher in Newark, New Jersey, and worked in public education for 42 years.
Larry Leverett is one of the co-founders of the network and the former Executive Director of the Panasonic Foundation, a corporate foundation with a mission of partnering with public school systems and their communities to break the links between race, poverty, and educational outcomes so that all students are improving academically and socially. Dr. Leverett is a former district superintendent in Englewood, New Jersey, Plainfield, New Jersey, and Greenwich, Connecticut.
Rachel Roegman is an assistant professor of Educational Leadership in the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her research centers on the support and development of equity-focused leaders.