PVAMU hosts summit on challenges of Black males in public schools
Getty Images

The issue of the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately impacts young Black men who enter the criminal justice system at higher rates than other races. In many Texas schools thousands of students face disciplinary actions that land them behind bars. This is a problem Prairie View A&M University (PVAMU) addressed during its Third Annual Summit on Improving Opportunities for African American and Latinx Male Youth.

The summit was sponsored by the Texas Juvenile Crime Prevention Center (TJCPC) and the Minority Achievement, Creativity and High Ability Center (MACH-III) at PVAMU. Educators, community members and professionals within the juvenile justice system learned about the current trends and educational challenges young children of color face particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic which has exacerbated the disparities that already exist in the public education system. 

“The school-to-prison pipeline is both a local—Texas—and national trend among African American and Latino male boys that enter into the educational system,” said Susan Frazier-Kouassi, Ph.D., director of the TJCPC. “But, through various disciplinary practices of the school, systematically end up leaving school and oftentimes land in the juvenile—and later, the adult—justice system. Closely examining the data will provide us with a deeper understanding.”

There are several contributing factors leading to the school-to-prison-pipeline

  1. Treatment and Prevention: Efforts are not evenly distributed across communities.
  2. Indirect Effects: Risk factors that correlate with race/ethnicity (living in disorganized neighborhoods, parent unemployment).
  3. Differential Behaviors: Youth from various backgrounds/racial subgroups may be involved in delinquent activity (gangs) and the social welfare system at differing rates.
  4. Geography: Jurisdiction-based differences (police presence, harsher judges, zero-tolerance school policies).
  5. Mobility Effects: Neighborhood factors (places to hang out) and whether youth spend time in other neighborhoods.
  6. Legislation and Policy: Certain laws may disadvantage youth of color differently (anti-loitering laws, drug laws).

Marvin Pierre, co-founder and executive director of Eight Million Stories, is one of many community advocates in Houston whose goal is to keep young people out of prison and on track to better job opportunities. Since 2017, the alternative education program helps young ex-offenders between the ages of 15-21 re-enter society, complete their GED’s and find employment. 

“Many of the students we serve are academically behind and overaged to return to a traditional school to work towards their high school diploma,” Pierre explained. “We are operating in the Third Ward because there’s a higher concentration of Black students who make up the juvenile population. Our focus is re-entry. This is a safe space for them to amend a mistake knowing that people are going to give them a chance to make better decisions again.”

Pierre was a former assistant principal at the Kipp Polaris Academy for Boys. He noticed that young boys came into the school with significant academic gaps and behavior challenges that made it difficult for them to easily transition into middle school. Teachers were trained to understand the needs of the children and create a culture that was responsive to how they learn.

This encouraged Pierre to take a more preventative approach to tackle the school-to-prison pipeline issue, especially during the pandemic. “It was hard for us to get our kids in the building. They were already disconnected from school. Virtual learning wasn’t a good option for them because of the lack of access to computers and internet access. Home conditions weren’t conducive to learning. We provided them with local resources to address social needs like social workers, and food and rental assistance,” he said. 

They are in the early stages of developing a mentoring and empowerment program called “Sons of Promise” to create a network of support for those who are showing early signs of disconnecting and high suspensions in school. The hope is to divert referrals to the juvenile system to their program and to future successes by using academic tutors, leadership development training and the launch of an automotive program to help them tap into vocational and STEM positions. 

Marquis Harris, 21, participates in the Eight Million Stories program. At the age of 13, he was incarcerated for two and a half years. Upon his return to school, he struggled academically and later dropped out. “I went to a Houston ISD school. I never really felt like I fit in. I felt out of place. I struggled to catch up with other students,” he said. “With this program, I feel more confident. I’m even considering joining the Air Force after I complete my GED. I have a daughter now, and I want to provide her an amazing life.”

Dr. Frazier-Kouassi says there are a few key priorities the team will focus on after the summit to include the voices of young Black men like Harris. 

1. Continue to build a statewide database of resources, initiatives and programs aimed at increasing opportunities for our young men.

2. Design and conduct a school climate survey of students, parents, teachers and administrators. 

3. Organize a special event for Black and Latino males to encourage more community dialogue.

Laura Onyeneho

I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...