Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline in Cambridge

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Mark Jaquith's picture

Jay Blitzman speaks at Cambridge Public Library

I had the good fortune to be able to attend the talk given by Jay Blitzman on Tuesday March 23, 2015 at the Main Library in Cambridge. Unfortunately, a previous commitment prevented me from seeing the entire program. Mr. Blitzman, the First Justice of the Middlesex County, MA Juvenile Court, spoke on the problem nationwide. He made the point that some very anti-intuitive things are going on in our country. Sixty years after Brown vs. Board of Education, schools are probably as segregated and unequal across the US as they were then, that nowhere are disciplinary policies applied in race-neutral ways, and that if you are non white and LGBT it’s even worse.

Another theme that Mr. Blitzman covered is the lack of due process for youth, zero tolerance policies, and the discretion allowed to the police that are increasingly deployed in public schools. The results, he said, are that normal adolescent behavior is often being effectively criminalized, and that youth of color suffer disproportionally. He gave the example of a case in Brooklyn in which the disruptive behavior of a non-white student with an intellectual disability led to the arrest not only of the student, but of the Principal and Assistant Principal when they tried to intervene. Follow this with the statistics that students who are arrested in school are three times more likely to drop out, and that students who don’t graduate high school are eight times more likely be arrested than their peers who do.

While juvenile arrests declined by 43% between 1996 and 2010, the implementation of the policies referred to above continue. According to US DOE statistics for the 2009-2010 school year, African American students represent 24% of enrollment but 35% of arrests. By comparison, the numbers for whites are flipped at 31% and 21%. One study cited by Blitzman says 2/3 of suspensions in Massachusetts public schools in 2013-2014 were for non-violent , non-criminal, non-drug offense and students of color, poverty, and disabilities suffered a disproportionate share and were treated more harshly than average.

All of this should come as no surprise to those who follow issues of race and poverty.

What I missed was the portion of the program hat concentrated on what can and is being done in Cambridge to prevent these practices and reverse the trends. The main points that Me Blitzman made in this regard were the need to give kids a real voice (and listen), use alternatives to suspension and detention, and create meaningful due process for minors.

The Program was sponsored by:

Healthy Children Taskforce

Mental Health Subcommittee of Cambridge Public Schools

Commonwealth of Massachusetts Juvinile Detention Alternatives Initiative Subcommittee on Restorative Justice & Race and Ethnic Diversity

More information is also available at The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvinile Detention Alternatives Initiative site.

Suggested reading:

Segregation Now by Nicole Hannah-Jones, Atlantic Monthly article on the Tuscaloosa, Alabama public schools. (Where I attended the segregated white school for first grade in 1963-’64)

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander