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The School to Prison Well-being Pipeline

What is the school to prison pipeline? How can schools provide learning environments that promote well-being and personal fulfillment?

Have you ever thought about how similar a prison and a school really are?  – dim lights, uninspiring walls, small windows, a rigorous schedule telling people what to do and when to do it. School and prison do not seem that far off from each other in many ways if you think about it. It is incomprehensible that a system in charge of shaping and teaching young minds would be compared to such a thing, but not only do they look similar, but the current education system has been shown to contribute to the high incarceration rates within the youth of America and beyond. 

The school-to-prison pipeline, observable across the United States, is the disproportionate tendency of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, especially Black and Latino students, to become incarcerated because of harsh school and municipal policies. Black youth are more than four times as likely to be detained or committed in juvenile facilities as their white peers. 1 Similarly, Latino students are 28% more likely to be detained or committed in juvenile facilities than white students. 2 Factors such as, school disturbance laws, zero tolerance policies and practices, and an increase in police in schools, have a hand in creating the pipeline that funnels students from school to incarceration. 3

American Civil Liberties Union found that around 60,000 youth under the age of 18, are incarcerated in juvenile jails and prisons in the United States, on any given day.  An overwhelming number of these kids come from low income communities, have histories of abuse, and have learning disabilities. These young people need another pipeline instead of being funneled into the prison pipeline that further perpetuates the ideology that you can not escape your current situation. What if schools became places that stopped the perpetuation of young people receiving juvenile punishment? 

This shift is already beginning to happen. With forward thinking individuals approaching education in new ways, the school to prison pipeline will be a ritual of the past, as a new system of connecting with challenged students takes its place. For reference, Aspire Public Schools have been transforming their Los Angeles education system in a different direction since the late 1990’s. 4 Their mission is to catalyze change in public schools through opening charter schools in low income neighborhoods to increase academic success and graduation rates of under-served students in new ways, develop effective educators, and share successful practices with other forward thinking educators. Compared to standard public schools, charter schools allow school administration greater autonomy in running the school, and in return receive a higher level of accountability for student success. Aspire has 619 alumni from the classes of 2007-2012 who have reached the six-year point. Of those, 26 percent earned bachelor’s degrees, a rate that rises to 36 percent when associate’s degrees and certificates are included. As the California school system expands, thousands of students’ are being pushed out and their academic needs are not being met. Aspire schools offer more accessibility to students who are not getting the support and education they need. For instance, in California only 71% of its high-school students graduate with a diploma, that number falling to 60 % for Hispanics, and 57% for African Americans. Many schools in the state are overcrowded, and students are having a difficult time receiving the resources and tools that constitute a well rounded education. 5 

Outside of the school system, changes in prison systems are occurring, such as in Norway and North Dakota, USA, which have been leaders in prison reform. Their new ways of supporting individuals who break laws are models that schools can learn from. For example, The Norwegian prison system boasts a 20 percent recidivism rate (the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend) – contrasted to the 76.6 percent recidivism rate in the U.S.  Specifically the Norwegian prison, Halden Prison, is considered to be the most humane prison in the world.  The Halden prison uses human tactics of architecture used to influence behavior, interactive activities, and multiple methods of mental health care. Sixty-three of every 100,000 people are incarcerated in Norway versus 655 per 100,000 in the U.S. 66a 

North Dakota applied a similar system to their prisons after visiting the Halden Prison in Norway. North Dakota’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation chief, Dave Krabbenhoft, says that a prison system focused on rehabilitation can save lots of money. 7 The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports data showing a decline in recidivism rates in a person’s first year after release among formerly incarcerated individuals, falling from 22.8 percent in 2015 to 13 percent in 2018. 8 

Even more effective change is happening in the youth prisons in California where they are being replaced altogether. The Office of Youth and Community Restoration, led by Katherine Lucero, calls for compassion, well-being and support rather than jail and foster care. With a background as a district attorney, Lucero had previously created specialty courts that approach families with a more therapeutic approach instead of a punitive one, giving lasting solutions to the youth and their families. For example, they were offered housing opportunities, mental health care, and a team approach to stabilizing their lives. According to the Imprint article, within the years leading up to the Division of Juvenile Justice shutting down, the number of youth ages 12 to 25 locked up by the state has dropped almost unimaginably — from an average daily population of roughly 10,000 in 1996 to fewer than 700 last year. 9 As of July 1, the state no longer accepts most new commitments, and the four remaining prisons will be closed by June 30, 2023. In the article, Lucero is quoted to say, “Looking at the brain science, we’re seeing that youth are incredibly resilient, and so we’re offering education more than just a surveillance model. We don’t just have to focus on one moment in time when you made a bad choice. We have to ask not just ‘what did you do,’ but ‘what happened?’”

The educational leaders who oversee the education system in the U.S. and other countries can learn from these successful examples and begin to integrate trauma-informed, healthy and empowering programs such as life, well-being, and social emotional learning (SEL) into the lives of students and teachers during the school day. To do this, they must first break through one of the biggest challenges they face; – not enough time or energy to add new programs that could be successful in supporting the well-being of students. The majority of school-time focus and energy goes towards managing student behaviors so teachers can “get through” ALL the mandated curriculum they currently have, so students do well on tests and get good grades. Most schools in the U.S. receive their state and federal funding (and their salaries) based on cumulative academic grades and standardized test scores which can cause schools to be in competition with each other. So why focus on anything but directly improving students’ grades? Teachers are pressured to teach to the curriculum and students spend personal time and money learning different ways to get better test scores. Who has time to focus on individual students and what they need?

This outcome-focused philosophy inherently detracts from a student-centered, whole child learning environment. The new prison systems and new-paradigm schools already understand that having everyone focusing on the same outcomes and goals don’t work to build healthy and empowered people who feel worthy and confident and can handle real life challenges with more ease. Instead it adds to a lack of confidence, increased toxic stress, anxiety, worry, depression, which can lead to addiction, violence, suicide and chronic disease. 10 The focus instead, needs to be on the individual, the gifts, talents and brilliance of every human being. This shift is imperative if we want our youth to grow up healthy and empowered. Thus, a complete shift in what schools offer young people and how our youth are treated is needed, as California is accomplishing in both their school system and juvenile prison system.  Students want to learn and will learn more easily when they feel understood and valued, and not stressed out or “not good enough.” Educators also need to feel this way, so they are more relaxed and connected in the classroom instead of pressured to make students do well on tests and get good grades. 

So how do school district leaders and school principals begin to make this shift in a system that is so ingrained in an old archaic, unhealthy, disempowering philosophy? Some school systems have tried to add wellness programs to their curriculum. It sounds like a good idea, but for most schools, the attempt has been unsuccessful in making much headway in student and teacher well-being. As long as schools have a written program (on the shelf) and are implementing a couple of wellness activities like having a yoga class at 7:00am (where 3 people show up) or providing mental health talks, they are allowed to check that mandated wellness program box off.  But is the wellness program actually doing what it was intended to do?

Having a couple of wellness activities might be small steps in the right direction, but from personal experience and observation, they don’t get to the core issues of a student’s challenges.  There is something missing from a mental health talk if the presenter talks “at you” and doesn’t know the first thing about each student or what they need. 

In addition, health classes have been required in secondary schools in the U.S. for over 200 years.11  They have given students information and skills on important health topics, sometimes life-saving information that most students might not have ever received if not at school. A lot of gain has been made with required health classes, but again, the quality of these classes depends on the training of the teacher and the school’s leadership to know how to truly integrate “healthy habits” into the lives of the students at school and beyond and to know how to set up learning environments that intrinsically motivate young people to make personal change. Many high school students joke about how lame their health class is and that it’s a waste of time. So how can we begin to use the already carved out time to do things differently? …to truly help students increase their overall well-being?

Knowing how to connect students and their teachers to a bigger system of well-being has been, and still is, difficult to do. School systems are just beginning to touch the surface on how to integrate well-being practices, routines and practices that focus on self-care, life-skills and SEL into the daily routines and curriculum. Health curriculum and classes could be a place to begin to integrate these skills for sure. But even more powerful is to begin to shift the “branding” of schools into life, learning and well-being communities instead of memorization, grades and testing communities. Offering time for students and teachers to practice mindfulness techniques, vision-mapping, and life and wellness coaching, or training teachers in the coaching-approach themselves, have been shown to make huge differences in the overall well-being of people no matter their age or their background. Giving ample time for self-reflection so that teachers and students know their passions, strengths, talents and goals and how they will share those in their classes and communities is key. Focusing on the personal well-being of individuals, as discussed earlier, has been shown to make the biggest positive changes in their life-long outcomes and contribution to society. This can save millions of dollars in mental and physical healthcare, and judicial costs, and more importantly, make life more fun and satisfying overall. 

Unfortunately, training to support school leaders and their teachers and students to not only learn how to integrate student-centered, whole-person well-being programs and skills, but also how to shift their current districts, schools and classrooms from the old “branding” to the new, are still far and few between. Real integration of empowering programs in a school day and beyond that can truly make a difference and get to the root cause of student and educator challenges will never be the priority or a success until the goal of “schooling” is shifted away from fitting into the “high grade, academic success box”, to a new focus on the individual person and their process of learning, growing and contributing.

Meg Hanshaw, Founder of i.b.mee., believes that the school to prison pipeline needs to be replaced by a well-being pipeline where there are rare suspensions, and detentions are eliminated and replaced with Well Labs, which are hubs for trauma-informed, positive coaching support and other needed resources and community-based services and supports. She sees the well-being pipeline providing every classroom and school with teachers, staff and principals trained as trauma-informed life and learning coaches which gives them the ability to use a plethora of new skills to support the well-being and developmental growth of young people at any time even in the middle of a lesson or a challenging behavior.  Life and well-being learning communities help young people create the space, time and skills to reflect on themselves, their interactions with others, and their learning.  They support them in shifting their mindsets and beliefs about themselves into ones that promote positivity, confidence and fulfillment even when mistakes are made or they come from a troubling home. They learn to collaborate with their peers and master something meaningful. It is where they feel whole, seen and valued. Doing this can positively change the life trajectory of every student and keep them with resources and skills so they don’t need to do things that would put them in prison. Young people who feel good about themselves, feel like they belong, and can effectively manage their emotions and behaviors, naturally want to learn and make a difference because they believe they can. 

I would like to see the well-being pipeline completely integrated into our education systems. Students inherently know what they need if they learn to trust their intuition. It’s time to slow down and focus on the intrinsic brilliance within all of us. There is still a lot of learning and training to be done, but there are plenty of innovative, courageous people out there setting new-paradigm standards in schools, who are already beginning to shift the school to prison pipeline into the school to well-being pipeline. 

What is the school to prison pipeline? Can we change it? How can schools provide learning environments that promote well-being and personal fulfillment? What is true success? What do you believe is the best pathway to success? What do you think is the most important skill a young person can learn to be healthy and empowered, and successful in life?

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