Bay Area teachers ventured inside prison to discuss the school-to-prison pipeline and how best to tackle it. San Quentin News hosted the October forum that allowed 14 educators and 21 inmates an opportunity to exchange ideas.
The teachers are troubled by the ever-increasing trend of student suspension, expulsion and arrest fueled by overreaching policies such as “zero tolerance.” Because of this, they accepted an invitation to discuss these issues with inmates whose delinquency started in the public school system.
“The school-to-prison pipeline has to do with bias,” said Deborah Mendoza, a former probation officer who works for the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). She said kids are labeled based on their affiliations. “We have this idea that public safety is investing in law enforcement.”
Kelli Riggs works for the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), where she teaches fifth grade at Bret Harte Elementary School in the city’s Bay View district. She said schools that adopt zero tolerance policies condition some teachers to have biases against some students.
“I can’t remember a time when I went to school when a teacher was for me,” said inmate Shadeed Wallace-Stepter. He said now that he is older he recognizes the value of education and how much teachers are on the front line.
Omar Hunter is a teacher, originally from Detroit, Michigan. He has worked for OUSD and now works in the Hayward Unified School District. He said school administrators need to understand the ethnic and racial makeup and the environment schools are in.
“I believe the school-to-prison pipeline begins with class and race oppression,” said Hunter. He said issues are escalated because of demographic differences, and schools need to keep the law out of it.
For some teachers, walking onto the grounds of San Quentin seemed all too familiar.
“Walking up to the physical building looks like a lot of schools,” said Keith Brown, who teaches sixth and eighth grade in the OUSD. “Walking on the (prison) yard was like walking through a high school at lunchtime.”
|“I’ve never sent a kid to detention because I see behavior as more of a symptom”|
According to Brown, zero tolerance policies for kids who break rules such as dress code and talking back to teachers are a basis for students to get labeled. The majority of these students are Black and Brown.
Inmate Borey Ai said his family arrived in the U.S. from Cambodia. “I found myself going to school and not connecting to other kids because of the language barrier,” he said. “The way I coped with things was to join a gang.”
Brown said this year he is teaching students who are new to the U.S., and he can now relate to Borey’s story. “I’m definitely going to share your story with my colleagues,” he said.
Inmate Rodolfo Medina-Barragan, 18, listened to the older inmates’ stories about their school disciplinary problems and delinquency that eventually led them to prison serving life sentences in California’s dangerous Level Four, maximum-security prisons.
Medina-Barragan said the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) Youth Offender Program (YOP) helped him out by not sending him to a Level Three or Level Four prison.
“I’m grateful that I’m here (San Quentin) so I don’t have to go through that,” said Medina-Barragan.
“I’ve never sent a kid to detention because I see behavior as more of a symptom,” said Trevor McNeil, who teaches seventh grade English. He said it makes sense that kids are defiant when they are hungry or abused.
Darell Ross, an assistant principal in Oakland, said when he started teaching he was given guidelines, rules and directives on how to deal with students.
“Looking back, I would start out with the end in mind,” Ross said.
Ross said different choices can be made by talking to inmates. He said educators need to learn from people who have been through certain experiences, and education administrations need to incorporate that in college training programs.
Toward the end of the forum, San Quentin News’ Editor-in-Chief, Arnulfo T. Garcia asked the inmates to share the moment in which they knew it was time to change their lives for the better.
“I had an epiphany moment when I saw a Death Row inmate escorted in shackles,” said inmate Philip Melendez. “That could have been me.”
For other inmates, change came with time.
“Hearing my mother cry when I got sentenced crushed me, but it didn’t change me,” said David Monroe. “Maturity made me see life differently.” He said San Quentin Utilizing Inmate Resources Experiences and Studies (SQUIRES) allowed him to see kids who reflect exactly who he was at their age.
Teachers were asked what their biggest takeaways would be from participating in the forum and hearing directly from those who fell into the school-to-prison pipeline trap.
Susanna Kershtholdt-Molloy said she did not like how kids are systematically targeted.
“My take-away is to reach out to families,” said Kershtholdt-Molloy. “I don’t blame the kids for what they bring to the table.”
Ross said, on behalf of educators who are doing their best, he wanted to apologize for anything they’ve done that led inmates to where they are today. He apologized for their failures.
“This instilled more awareness in what it takes to raise a child,” said Ross. “Instead, we look for ways to isolate and separate. We have all that we need to solve problems, but we have to come together.”
This initial forum will lead to future San Quentin forums with educators in the community who are interested in reaching out to at-risk students.