By Hilderbrand Pelzer III
Author of Unlocking Potential
Bryant was charged with murder for strangling and killing his roommate at a Philadelphia psychiatric facility, where he was a resident receiving treatment for his serious mental and behavioral health disorders. Who would have thought that Bryant was capable of such a vicious crime? Who would have thought he posed a significant danger to himself and others around him?
Prior to Bryant’s fatal act of aggression toward his roommate and his eventual trip to prison for committing a murder, he was a public education student who was “sent” to an alternative school because he violated the student code of conduct. Before sending Bryant to an alternative school, there was no real regard for his mental state. Nor was there any regard for whether the alternative school that he was sent to was conducive to the type of teaching and learning support he so desperately needed. Oh well, it doesn’t matter! The zero-tolerance policy prevails. Bryant was out of his regular school setting and sent to an alternative school to never be heard from again. Now, he is in prison!
How many other students, like Bryant, find themselves in an alternative school for a student code of conduct infraction instead of in a school that can provide them with deliberate teaching and learning and care for their mental and behavioral health disorders?
It is a common practice of many school districts across the nation to set up alternative schools just to have an “educational setting” to dump their student code of conduct violators, despite the fact that their actions may be caused by a mental and behavioral health disorder.
In 2012, school districts should be more knowledgeable about the value of alternative education. It adds to the public educational experience by advancing a number of exciting school models and approaches to teaching and learning. With the growing public dissatisfaction with traditional public schools, parents and students are looking for a different educational experience. They want an experience that offers a highly charged academic learning environment, small student-to-teacher ratios and class sizes, close relationships between students and teachers, and a stronger sense of school community. Instead, the design and function of alternative education is all wrong in many school districts. It is the lockup for students that other schools don’t want.
Too often alternative education practices perpetuate criminalization; hence, the school-to-prison pipeline. It is overpopulated with black and Latino boys. The terms behavior, discipline and alternative education are linked in holy matrimony. Students formerly adjudicated delinquents or currently involved in the juvenile justice system or assigned probation officers make up the typical student population. In fact, in many instance, judges and probation officers hold the most influence over students in alternative schools and, as a result, they typically attend school solely to appease the orders of judges and not the orders of their parents, teachers or principals. When the order is lifted, you usually see the school attendance for these students declining.
With the assembly line nature of sending students to an alternative education setting, the enrollment process in alternative schools is more chaotic and constantly compromises academic functions and instructional coherence. With an already growing enrollment of students who have violated the student code of conduct or who have been suspended for long-terms or who find themselves years behind academically, it is easy for alternative schools to get overpopulated and lose academic focus. The students’ mental and behavioral health disorders start taking over and teaching and learning takes a back seat.
Alternative education for the purpose of warehousing students is a major contributor to the widening achievement gap and educational disparities. It displaces the academic mission of schools at a time when all schools need to focus on each student’s academic development. It propels low performance through remedial and low-level teaching and learning experiences. It is not uncommon to find poorly skilled and underprepared teachers in alternative school classrooms. At every opportunity to fix alternative education, decision-makers have chosen not to change. They use the alternative education setting as the tunnel that hides students as they travel from the school to prison.
For the sake of public education, alternative education cannot continue to be the asylum where students with mental and behavioral health disorders are warehoused. While I will be the first to admit that schools must not tolerate poor behaviors or crimes inside schools, alternative education should not be tagged as the “educational setting” to accommodate students with mental and behavioral health disorders. Alternative education should be tagged as the “educational setting” that motivates, educates and inspires students to excel and achieve in school.
What do you think? I am sure there are other opinions out there. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think is a major contributor to the schools-to-prison pipeline.