Fighting the school-to-prison pipeline
By ALLY GODSIL
For Montclair Local
Black students are four times more likely to be suspended from school than their white peers.
Montclair High School Students presented startling statistics to introduce their event topic: the school-to-prison pipeline. Around 30 community members gathered in the Wally Choice Community Center on Sunday, Feb. 15, fully engaged in the presentation given by Montclair HighSchool Students. Attendees consisted of many students, and a large number of parents and adults, many concerned about the experiences of their children.
The event was led by Students Genesis Whitlock, Shayla George, Molly Sailer, and Ariana Padilla and sponsored by the NAACP Montclair branch.
The school-to-prison pipeline generally refers to the disproportionate number of marginalized students who are incarcerated due to harsh school and municipal policies. The Montclair Board of Education has begun actively combating the issue, getting rid of the student code of conduct policy in which students could be suspended for language that was deemed subjectively inappropriate. Latifah Jannah, Vice President of the Montclair Board of Education, was in attendance and discussed the steps the board has started to take. Jannah also invited the audience to attend the Board of Education of meeting this Wednesday, March 4, to discuss their grievances.
After a presentation of statistics by events student leaders, attendees split up into talk circles, with each group focused on a specific topic. These talk circles were modeled off the dynamics used in Restorative Justice, a program utilized in several Montclair Public Schools, including Glenfield Middle School.
Syreeta Carington, a Social Studies teacher at Glenfield Middle School, moderated one of these circles. Some participants had little to no knowledge or experience of the issue, but were openly willing to learn more.
To ensure a peaceful, friendly dynamic and effective discussion in circles, teddy bears were passed person to person so that each member’s voice was heard. Groups wrote out these solutions on large poster paper and these were presented by moderators in front of the entire audience.
One group proposed that school suspensions be abolished completely. There was a call for a reduction in security personnel on school campuses, and an increase in therapists. Discussion leads to action. Pelham proposed that the students request a letter be written by the NAACP to the Board of Education addressing the school-to-prison pipeline.
Alma Schneider advocated for the utilization of the Montclair Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC) to allow parents to know their rights in terms of school policy and gain support for any problems their child might be facing. Many children receive punishment for behaviors that are actually caused by learning disabilities or undiagnosed mental illness. These problems are called “invisible disabilities” because they can be misunderstood by others and often go untreated.
The event ended with attendees gathering in a circle and holding hands, perfectly depicting how community collaboration helps promote unity and compassion.
INTERVIEW WITH GENESIS WHITLOCK
What is the School to Prison Pipeline?
The school-to-prison pipeline is a process where underrepresented students are being
pushed out of schools and into prisons due to harsh policies that tend to adversely impact
students of color.
Have you had any personal experiences with this issue?
When I moved to Montclair I noticed that my white friends who misbehaved were seen as
“misunderstood” and were given a conversation and an opportunity to learn from their
mistakes while my friends who were students of color “should have known better” and did
not receive the same treatment, so I did everything I could to decriminalize my identity as awoman of color, but I’ve still had many experiences at Montclair High School where
teachers have treated me like a secondary student.
Why do you feel it’s an important issue to talk about?
Complacency is so dangerous because Montclair is very diverse. but you can never really doenough when we still have issues that contribute to the school-to-prison-pipeline, like in
school segregation and discrimination. Refusing to talk about it doesn’t solve the issues, it
only dismantles our ability to address it when we see it happening on individual and
What can we do to help end it on a local level? On a national level?
On a local level, our community can engage in discussions about the school-to-prison
pipeline and equality happening in Montclair in general. A group of students are advocating
at tBoard of Ed meetings, andpresenting our ideas as to how Montclair can address
the school to prison pipeline, and we’d love support from the community. What can be done
on a national level is to abolish in-school suspension, implement programs like Restorative
Justice to be a requirement before any punishment is given to students.
Why do you believe this issue happens?
This issue happens in Montclair because of blatant racism. If students of color are
criminalized and seen as secondary students they won’t merit the same treatment or justice.
What do you think teachers can do to help end this issue?
Be proactive! The teachers who challenge me, and do their best to support their students
equitably are the reason I feel empowered enough to be who I am. It should be requirement for teachers to take workshops on conflict resolution, discrimination and cultural competency so the responsibility isn’t on the student to deal with violent actions and rhetoric in the Classroom.
How do you believe Restorative Justice helps solve this issue?
Restorative Justice helps navigate conflict whether it be internal or external, by helping
students understand ways effectively communicate and empathize for others. I, as well as
many other students have utilized Restorative Justice throughout the year and it’s been so
impactful. RJ makes me feel like I can be the change I want to see in Montclair.
Ally Godsil is a junior at Montclair High School.