Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Matriculating from school to prison

      Spring brings two distinct send-offs in every school district. One has school colors, school songs, beaming faces. The other is this: the venting of students with hunched shoulders and vacant expressions.

      One rite — commencement — signifies we did something right. The second send-off signifies that we didn't. It is what happens the moment a community no longer can tell an angry teen that he or she has to be in school.       

      In spring, school districts' alternative campuses are bulging with students who can't get it right, or won't. Their home campuses have been relieved of the burden that was them. No school would want the kind of cumulative disruption and malaise they represent. Indeed, removing them from traditional classrooms is not only reasonable but smart.

       What's not smart is what we do with them after that.

       What we do, basically, is groom them for prison.

       That was the blunt observation of a study of the Texas "school-to-prison pipeline," that "the precursor for many young people's involvement in the juvenile justice system is disciplinary referrals in school."

        That seemingly needs no study. Behind the obvious, however, the study observed something generally ignored and discounted: We miss critical opportunities to redirect young people from paths that lead from school to prison just as surely as Highway 190 leads to Huntsville.

        We particularly miss an opportunity to help young people deal with the anger burning in them that often makes any attempt at traditional discipline utterly futile. 

         In Waco, a retiree named Richard Moore observed this when he volunteered to tutor students in in-school suspension. He might as well have been peddling cod liver oil-flavored snow cones. It was a complete waste, and no one in the school seemed to share his concern about the situation, or the students involved.

   He read about the success Austin's Council of At-Rick Youth — CARY — had in helping middle-school students address anger issues that make learning impossible. Moore set out to get a CARY-like response in Waco. He would not take "no," or "maybe," or "good idea; we'll study it," for an answer.

   Recently the district responded, with a big assist from the state: $500,000 as a Texas Secondary School Redesign and Restructuring Grant. Brazos Middle School and Waco High School will use it to do lots of things, but principally to change how they handle discipline in in-school suspension (ISS). Waco High intends to change its ISS into a center that focuses in part on academics and in part on counseling and anger management. District officials acknowledged that ISS is little more than a place where incorrigible children simmer in their own juices.

      As for alternative schools, they vary in form and quality. Unfortunately, too often they are little more than holding tanks that are understaffed at the start of the school year and are beyond overmatched in May.

     CARY, which deals with middle schoolers who have been referred for discipline, has shown the state what can be done in these schools and in ISS.

      When trained individuals lead young people on a course of self discovery about anger and disruption, they can help a surprising number get back in the learning game. Until that happens, forget about it.

      Texas needs to inventory the practices of ISS across the board, and alternative schools as a class. What are we doing to address the anger that is almost certain to be sprung on the general public when that spring "commencement" rolls around?

    Too often, we address it by finding cellblocks for those young people once those school doors cannot contain them.

      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

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