“The beast of mass incarceration is a many-headed Hydra.”
With those words, Carrie Banks of the Central Library Branch of the Brooklyn (NY) Public Library (BPL) opened a conference called “Interrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”
Banks, director of inclusive services at BPL, emphasized that librarians, whether public or school libraries, can play an important role in keeping kids out of the prison system—and helping those who are incarcerated.
“Libraries are in a unique position to provide the information, support, and referrals that youth need to stay out of the juvenile justice system, stay connected with the community while they are inside, and reenter the community when they get out,” she said. “They are also a neutral place to chill, read some books, play some games, and stay engaged.” The event showed how libraries can take the lead providing important information to constituents.
Colin Montgomery of INCLUDEnyc provided information to conference attendees.
The conference—co-sponsored by Advocates for Children and INCLUDEnyc, an organization that helps parents obtain services for their children—drew 200 attendees, including many professionals working with children with disabilities. Agencies represented included the Administration for Children’s Services, the New York City Department of Education, and the New York State Office of Children’s and Family Services and foster care agencies. About 30 parents, and a few children, also attended.
Emphasizing that race, gender, and disability are all factors in who winds up in prison, Banks noted that other issues including learning or mental disabilities often don’t receive as much attention. “Not all those in the prison system with those disabilities have been diagnosed, but enough are that we know it is a determining factor,” she said.
BEATING THE ODDS
Keynote speaker Khalil A. Cumberbatch, associate vice president of policy at The Fortune Society, which focuses on helping formerly incarcerated individuals build successful lives, shared his own story. Cumberbatch said that “after a series of flawed choices,” he spent six and a half years in prison for first-degree robbery.
The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of its citizenry than any other country in the world, Cumberbatch noted. He prefers the term hyper-incarceration over the more commonly used mass incarceration, because, he said, incarceration disproportionately impacts certain segments of the population. As an example, Cumberbatch pointed to seven neighborhoods in New York City—nearby Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, among them—that are heavily represented in New York state prisons.
He described safety officer systems at schools in these neighborhoods, under the auspices of the New York City Police Department, as paramilitary in structure. That sets up a “them versus us” mentality, he said: “Any paramilitary system is structured around identifying an enemy, which is anyone who is not ‘us.’”
He pointed out that at least 190 of these school safety agents are armed, and that there are far more of them than guidance counselors.
Cumberbatch asked attendees to think about how it feels to walk through a major transportation hub and see heavily armed officers keeping watch with automatic weapons. “Do more police make you feel more safe or less safe?” he asked. “Imagine how a child feels seeing that in their learning environment.”
His own turning point, he said, was being asked to lead a group for young male inmates while in prison. When Cumberbatch hesitated, the departing leader asked Cumberbatch a question that he repeated to the audience: “Do you want to be part of the problem, or part of the solution?” he asked. “Being the latter means being the one who has the nerve to stand up and say what everyone else is thinking but doesn’t want to say, because of job security, or a pension. Use your privilege—and everyone sitting here has privilege of some type—to do the right thing.”
UNDERSTANDING STUDENT BEHAVIOR
Banks continued the program by noting that the path to prison often starts with a school suspension. Understanding the individual education program (IEP) process and available services, and how to work on a student’s behalf, can help prevent suspensions in the first place, she said.
Ruth DiRoma, of INCLUDEnyc, and Carol Dawson, director of behavior support for the New York City Department of Education, explained the ins and outs of a functional behavior analysis (FBA) and a behavior intervention plan (BIP).
Ruth DiRoma, left, speaks with a conference attendee after a session.
Kids do things for a reason and an FBA’s purpose is to identify that reason. Is a child acting out to get attention, as a means of self-expression, or to distract from something they don’t want to be held accountable for? DiRoma described how her own son, who, after a long night of struggling with math homework, not getting enough sleep, and skipping breakfast, ripped up his undone homework and flung it at his teacher.
The behavior triggers there—fatigue, hunger, frustration—are among the most common among kids, she said. Others include staffing changes, such as a favorite teacher being transferred; the time of day (particularly in relation to medications wearing off); a change of environment, either at home or at school; and illness or allergies.
But despite these understandable triggers, DiRoma noted, repeated inappropriate behavior can lead to a suspension—and from there, it can be a slippery slope for already at-risk kids.
DiRoma explored what function her son’s actions could have been serving in his mind. Releasing frustration was one, but so was saving face: by ripping up the sheet, the teacher wouldn’t see how much he didn’t know. By being sent to the principal, he was getting out of class and avoiding having his lack of math understanding exposed.
“Removing a child from the cause [of inappropriate behavior] is not always the answer,” insisted DiRoma, adding that sending a child home early, for example, often rewards the behavior. “The question becomes how to discourage the behavior and how not to reward it,” she said.
DiRoma recalled a student who would routinely bump into, or shove, other boys in the locker room before gym. In the end, it was discovered he wanted to avoid gym class, and was roughing up his fellow students in order to get dismissed.
In determining whether an FBA is necessary, some of the factors considered are whether the student’s behavior impedes learning, brings a risk of harm (to themselves or others) or is suspected of being related to a disability. Students classified with emotional disturbance, such as an anxiety disorder or depression, should automatically have an FBA conducted, DiRoma said, adding that parents, educators, guidance counselors, school social workers and psychologists, and even school bus drivers, can be involved in an
Once the FBA is in place, a BIP, based on the results, describes the facets of the behavior in detail: when and where it usually occurs, and what can be done to prevent it. Educators and other professionals focus on the biggest behavior problem, with its surrounding actions and antecedents.
Behavior interventions created as a result of this process don’t have to be complicated, noted DiRoma.“I had a student who sat next to a window and so was continually distracted by trains going by. The solution? Moving his seat out of sight of that window.”
She gave another student a five-minute break to walk around the hallway. Another effective behavior intervention might be to arrange a signal between the student and teacher to communicate that the lesson has gone over the student’s head. A graphic organizer can help a student stay on top of assignments and reduce embarrassment over undone homework.
Finding a new way to present information, perhaps by “chunking out” instructions, rather than rattling off steps, is a helpful intervention for kids who act out from frustration over not being able to keep up in class. Replacing ineffective behaviors with appropriate ones that serve the same purpose—such as asking for help instead of ripping up a worksheet—can be tried as well, said DiRoma.
“That’s all behavior intervention,” she noted. “And it all provides an opportunity to offer positive feedback.” To the boy who took a lap around the halls to blow off steam, for instance, DiRoma would say, “Thanks for getting back here on time.”
THE PARENT CHALLENGE
Bradge has had difficulties activating parents to work on the intractable problems facing their local schools, even when their own child was affected. At the root is lack of trust, she believes.
That attitude trickles down to students, she said. “Students push back because their caregivers don’t trust the schools or social workers. They’re afraid that next thing they know, someone is going to show up at their door questioning their parent or caregiver.”
One attendee was concerned about how to reduce the stigma around “receiving services,” especially when approaching parents.
“Emphasize that this is a specially designed plan of education,” Dawson recommended. “It’s personalized to their child. Not everyone gets that!”
Negative language is also harmful, DiRoma said. She has often heard parents saying things like “My child is an IEP” or my “My kid is special needs.” That kind of phrasing can reinforce a poor image of behavioral interventions.
Trying to cover up a learning disability also reinforces that negative stigma. DiRoma urged parents to be open with their children. She recalled a parent who hadn’t told her 12-year-old son that he had a disability. “I said, ‘Really? You think your 12-year-old doesn’t know? And when are you planning to talk to him about it?’”
DiRoma insisted that each student is motivated by something. “There’s a spark in every kid,” she said. “One student idolized his older sister, so we worked with that. Another turned out to be super creative with his hands, so that’s what we built on.”
MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES
A separate session highlighted the links between mental health support and improved behavior. A recent survey conducted by ThriveNYC found that 20 percent of high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless for two weeks or more at a time.
“Focusing on mental health leads to better academic performance and fewer behavior issues,” said Rachel Castro, a school social worker and school mental health field supervisor with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Challenges to bringing a clinic on-site at a school, said Castro, include budget constraints and space (by law, mental health services must be provided in a private space, and those are in short supply in most schools.)
Time is another hurdle. Before the appropriateness of a dedicated space or the assignment of a mental health consultant for a school can be assessed, forms have to be filled out and questions answered. “And when a fight is breaking out, that’s the priority, not our survey,” Castro said.
The best results occur when the entire family is involved in solving a child’s mental health issues, she said. “Treat it the same way you would if it were diabetes or asthma. They’ll grow up to have a much better quality of life, more success, if the whole family takes part in therapy, rather than just dropping the child off.”
NO ONE SOLUTION
The school-to-prison pipeline “is not a subject you can put fabric softener on,” said Sydahne Bradge, a parent advocate from North Harlem in New York City. “This is a very , longstanding issue, and accountability is required on everyone’s part.”
Christine Crowther, Medicaid service coordinator at the Block Institute in Brooklyn, a non-profit organization that assists families with needed services, said the conference gave her a clear look at a complicated situation.
“The information presented is always good to have an understanding she said. “Even if you don’t have a child that needs it today, you never know what tomorrow may bring.”