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PART II: Youth incarceration and Oklahoma’s school-to-prison pipeline

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Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two piece story. To read part one, click here.

Teacher training and cultural competency

Panelist Dr. Joy Thomas, OU professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, addressed issues related to cultural literacy and the lack of adequate training for pre-service teachers (i.e. future educators who have not yet entered the workforce). “I’m coming at this from a position of training pre-service teachers to be social justice teachers,” Thomas said.

Thomas said that when she recently asked an Oklahoma City school administrator what her biggest problems were, she was told that 50 percent of the work she does in schools is not education. The administrator told Thomas, “I comb hair. I wash faces. I have extra snacks. I talk to parents. I advocate for their other children who are either incarcerated or in the juvenile justice system.”  The administrator told Thomas that’s not something she learned during her teacher training.  She does it out of necessity.

Thomas explained that she uses these example in her own college classrooms when training future educators.  She wants her own students to understand that “you have to do more than just teach. You have to be a social justice teacher. You have to understand the students and their background, and you have to be culturally aware.” 

Thomas noted that, with very few exceptions, all of the students enrolled in her education classes are young, white, and female. At the beginning of the semester, when she asks her students why they want to be teachers, she hears things like “we love kids” and “the children are so precious.” 

Thomas then shows them a documentary film on inner-city youth. The film shows black, elementary-age children explaining how to rob a stores and break into cars.  When the film is over, Thomas gives her students time to reflect before asking, “Do you love those kids too? Do you want to teach those kids?” She lets the questions hang in the air. 

On her students’ reactions to the film and the hanging questions, Thomas says a lot of them get up and leave. She’s glad they do. Thomas emphasises that, in order to do the job, “you need to love all kids.”

Thomas, who has also worked as a corrections officer in Oklahoma, says that when she visits incarcerated women, she asks them about the problems their children are having in school. She is alarmed.  She says she’s alarmed that, in 2015, there is a lack of care and empathy in the teaching profession. The incarcerated women tell Thomas that teachers often make hostile, disparaging remarks to the children.

“It’s pretty harsh and it’s pretty sad,” Thomas said.  She recounted several examples of the hostile school climate created by some teachers. The remarks include: “You’re going to go to prison just like your mom.” “We know you’re not going to amount to anything.” “You can’t learn.” “Why are you always hungry?” “Is there anyone at home taking care of you?”

“If all we’re teaching in our schools is methods and not culturally-relevant material then the cycle continues,” Thomas said.

Like many of the panelists, Thomas is a strong proponent of Restorative Justice Practices.  Practitioners of restorative justice focus on building trust between parents and educators.  They aim to develop a strong sense of community within schools by building healthy, empathetic relationships to improve the overall school climate. It’s a “total school” approach that is also aimed at engaging other stakeholders in the surrounding community.  Thomas noted that Restorative Practices have worked in Philadelphia and other historically Black school districts with high rates of expulsion and youth incarceration.

Legislative challenges

Terry Smith, president and CEO of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, spoke of a need for prevention services. He asked members of the panel to talk to state legislators about supporting programs that aid families and steer at-risk youths away from the criminal justice system.  For Smith, a 30 year veteran of the juvenile justice system, one of the biggest problems is budget cuts for mental health and social services. “We have to talk to our legislator now, before the session starts.” 

Smith says it’s important to educate legislators that prevention services are economically smart for the state.  Oklahoma currently spends about $20,000 year per prisoner. “If we can just provide services to families in the community, the costs would be a fraction of that.”  According to the Children’s Defense Fund, states on average are spending 2.8 times more money per prisoner than per student. For OKC Public Schools, the state spends $3,975 per student. For Tulsa schools, the state spends $3,741 per student.

Smith noted there are many challenges in securing funds through the state legislature.  “Term limits have changed the nature of the legislative process in Oklahoma,” Smith said.  When legislators are term-limited out of office, the process of educating representatives on the need for prevention services starts all over again. Smith says the state has lost a lot of long-term champions for children’s programs in recent years due to term limits.

“Each year I get over there and try to educate the new legislators that come in,” Smith says.  New legislators don’t understand the importance of prevention services. They don’t have the information needed to make good decisions about juvenile justice issues. “They know about oil companies, and they know about business, and they know about the people who got them elected, but they don’t know about these issues… By the time we get ‘em trained up, they term out.”

Still segregated

Sixty years after Brown v. the Board of Education, many urban schools across the US remain de facto segregated. Oklahoma City still had separate schools for black and white students until 1963. School desegregation in Oklahoma City finally began when a 1963 injunctive decree, issued by an Oklahoma district court, required the city to begin integrating “inherently unequal” dual-school system. 

In 1991, a US Supreme Court ruling in Dowell v. School Board of Oklahoma City Public Schools dissolved the 1963 injunction.  In that case, the court argued that such injunctive decrees were only a “temporary measure to remedy past discrimination."  The SCOTUS ruling on the Dowell case set a precedent, allowing other school districts across the country to dissolve similar desegregation decrees issued at the height of the civil rights movement.

Dowell allowed other school districts to argue that the discrimination of the past was no more; or at least, that it was no longer an intentional factor in the racial makeup of the schools. After Dowell, school districts across the South have followed suit.
According to a report from ProPublica, school integration peaked nationally in 1988.  Since then, the number of segregated “apartheid schools” has climbed from 2,762 to 6,727 nationwide. Not surprisingly, a number of those apartheid schools are right here in Oklahoma City.  Today, 21 of OKC’s 93 public schools have a Black student population of less than 10 percent.  3 of OKC’s public schools are at least 90 percent Black. Another 12 schools are 80 percent or more Black.  School closures resulting from white flight and an end to forced busing under the Finger Plan in 1985 have driven those numbers higher over the past two decades.

(Images provided by the National Center for Education Statistics)

Between 1971 and 1981, the Oklahoma City Public School district lost nearly 30,000 white students and about 2,000 African American students.  In 2011 the public school district had 43,283 enrollees.  While about 63 percent of all Oklahoma City residents are white, only 19 percent of the school district’s students are white. The other white students are enrolled in private schools. African Americans are 15 percent of the total population of OKC, but account for 27 percent of the school district’s total enrollment.  Hispanics are only 17 percent of the city’s total population but are 46 percent of the district’s total enrollment.

For private school enrollment, those figures are somewhat inverted.  In the Oklahoma City district, 67 percent of students enrolled in private schools are white.  About 9 percent of private school students are black.  16.4 percent are Hispanic. 
Residential zoning practices, white flight, and economic inequality have encouraged the segregated housing patterns that condition the racial makeup of public schools. Segregation has re-insinuated itself through the free-market, in predominantly white private schools. Oklahoma City public schools are looking like an alternate history in which Brown v. the Board of Education never occurred.

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About the Author

Casey Holcomb

Casey Holcomb is a writer, independent journalist, and policy advocate based in Norman, Oklahoma...

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