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Exploring How Teachers Can Combat the School-to-Prison Pipeline

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Connecticut Teacher of the Year Sheena Graham listens in on a discussion about teachers’ roles in addressing the racial imbalance in our juvenile and criminal justice system. Seated with Graham are CEA Vice President Tom Nicholas and Bridgeport Education Association Vice President Ana Batista.

Despite the tremendous progress Connecticut has made in reducing the number of incarcerated youth over the past 10 years, a troubling trend continues: Black and brown children continue to come in contact with the juvenile and criminal justice system in disproportionate numbers compared to their white peers. Studies have confirmed that bias is one factor—meaning that white children are less likely to be referred to the juvenile or criminal justice system than their nonwhite peers, even for the same behaviors.

To address this continued racial imbalance, CEA’s Ethnic Minority Affairs Commission (EMAC) hosted a film screening of CPTV’s Color of Justice Revisited, followed by a discussion—led by experts in their fields—about how educators can help end the school-to-prison pipeline. More than 60 educators attended the event at Testo’s Ristorante in Bridgeport on April 25.

 

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EMAC members Althea Carr and Faith Sweeney (L-R) join CEA President Jeff Leake in watching the documentary Color of Justice Revisited.

Teachers on the front lines

Michael Lawlor, an associate professor of criminal justice at University of New Haven and Connecticut’s former OPM undersecretary for Criminal Justice, was a guest speaker at the EMAC event. He noted that school disengagement is a known predictor of entry into the criminal justice system and added that teachers, who are increasingly sophisticated about how to respond to students with behavioral issues, have been a tremendous help in combating the school-to-prison pipeline.

“It’s important to provide access to educational opportunity for all students, and it starts with us, knowing where our students are coming from and what issues they face at home, in their community, and in the world,” said Westport’s Coleytown Elementary School teacher Faith Sweeney, a CEA EMAC member since 2009. “We need to understand that not everyone has equal opportunities, and as teachers on the front lines, we can help build a more equitable and socially conscious world. When you think of the school-to-prison pipeline, our own biases can contribute to positive or negative outcomes for students. This is always on my mind.”

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Bridgeport colleagues Oran Spencer, who teaches at Central High School, and Sherene Kennedy, a school counselor at Waltersville School, chat before the film screening.

Bridgeport school counselor Sherene Kennedy, who saw the original Color of Justice documentary in 2013, returned for the screening of Color of Justice Revisited and brought a colleague with her. “I’m hoping to continue the dialogue,” she said. “Our school system is very short on resources, and students are coming in with more challenging circumstances. We need to ensure that our schools are preparing students for the workplace, not the prison system.”

East Hartford Education Association EMAC Chair Nicole Campbell, who teaches fifth grade at O’Brien School, met CEA EMAC Chair Sean Mosley at an NEA leadership conference in New Orleans that she says “opened up some rich conversations about equity.” Mosley, a Waterbury teacher, encouraged her to come to the film screening.

Social justice in the classroom

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Stratford Education Association Co-Vice President Kristen Record, seated with CEA UniServ Representative Herman Whitter, participates in a Q&A.

“Social justice issues are something we face every day, and they’re perhaps more evident in our classrooms than in other places,” said fifth-grade social studies teacher Mavis Etienne, who teaches at Bridgeport’s Read School. “In our cities, students and teachers are not provided with the resources they need; it starts there.”

For Torrington teacher Carrie Cassady, attending the discussion was important, she said, “as a white educator who wants to better understand the needs of all of my students and the ways social issues affect them.”

Mosley pointed out that because educators are often the first adults with whom children interact on a regular basis outside the home, EMAC explores issues that affect not only teachers of color but also students of color.

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Stamford teacher Tricia Conduah is one of more than 60 educators who traded insights and ideas at the EMAC event.

Following the film screening, participants raised questions and entered into a dialogue about implicit and explicit bias, underfunded school districts, poverty as an outcome of prejudice, and more.

“The keys to having these courageous conversations about race are speaking your truth, being willing to experience discomfort, and expecting a lack of closure,” said Middletown Superior Court juvenile matters supervisor Michelangelo Palmieri, who facilitated the discussion together with Meghan Korn, a cultural responsiveness specialist with the Connecticut Judicial Department.

“We have to accept that we might not solve all these problems today,” said Korn. “But we need to keep that conversation going.”

Interested in joining or learning more about CEA’s Ethnic Minority Affairs Commission? Click here.

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