“I am innocent.” These three words caught my attention as I watched “Time: The Kalief Browder Story,” a six-part documentary series that aired on SpikeTV throughout the month of March to the beginning of April. Browder was only 16 years old when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack and sent to the Rikers Island Prison Complex, where he spent three years before he was eventually set free, never having gone to trial.
However, just like many Black males, he faced the hardships of dealing with wrongful imprisonment and constant mental and physical abuse in prison. He committed suicide two years after leaving Rikers.
The documentary painted the gruesome picture of the cruelty of the United States criminal justice system through the agony, torture and impactful legacy of Browder. More importantly, it shed some light on an epidemic that has started to be given importance by many academics, activists and educators—the school-to-prison pipeline.
What is the school-to-prison pipeline?
The school-to-prison pipeline is described by the American Civil Liberties Union as, “the policies and practices that push our school children out of the classroom and into juvenile and criminal systems.”
According to the United States Department of Education Civil Rights Report of 2013-2014, boys account for 71 percent of school suspensions and of those suspensions, 49 percent are African-American.
Many school officials do not see punitive school discipline in a negative light. In fact, some school psychologists perceive school discipline as instilling safety for students and teachers within the classroom. School administrators, law enforcement and teachers are school officials who utilize school discipline to maintain structure both inside and outside of the classroom. However, the level of severity for school discipline varies as it pertains to different racial demographics. African-Americans are the targets of punitive school discipline tactics because of crime rates corresponding to the location of schools.
It is not a coincidence that Browder, a young African-American from the poorest congressional district in the country, the South Bronx, constantly was cited as a “problem child” and faced many out of school suspensions by school administrators.
One possible solution for alleviating the problem of the school-to-prison pipeline is found through the Every Student Succeed Act. The flexibility of the ESSA allows both state and local educational agencies to determine the school discipline practices within their respective school jurisdictions.
Its future funding is reassured through its passage into law by President Obama Dec. 10, 2015. There are guidelines for schools to coordinate with any local educational agencies or consortia of such agencies implementing a Youth Promise Plan to reduce exclusionary discipline.
The allocation of the ESSA needs to be revamped to promote more opportunities for informed trauma care, which can incentivize teachers to utilize this resource in schools rather than resulting to zero tolerance policies. Because the ESSA promotes its usage on a local level through providing block grants to state and local education agencies, it should create alternative methods of funding.
Browder is a product of the school-to-prison pipeline, a criminal justice theory, which similar to Browder’s documentary, paints a picture of a system that continues to funnel African-American boys into prison systems throughout the United States.
I am optimistic that better days are to come, with both philanthropists and major celebrities such as Jay Z shedding light on the importance of criminal justice reform by attaching their names to documentaries such as “Time: The Kalief Browder Story.”
However, we as a nation must continue to galvanize and push our local and federal legislators to fight systems such as the school-prison-pipeline and wrongful imprisonment and continue to develop policies and fund research that provides support to African-Americans in impoverished neighborhoods.
We need mental health support in schools for those who face trauma. Browder did not die in vain, and his life will continue to support the movement criminal justice reform, both inside and outside of the education system.
Walter A. Jean-Jacques is a graduate student at University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy & Practice. firstname.lastname@example.org.