“A History of Non-Compliance”: Or ‘How the US School-to-Prison Pipeline Devalues the Lives of Young People

“Because this is what the exceptionalization of black sons and daughters gets us. Value placed on life by GPA and background checks.” – Fresco Steez, quoted here

“A History of Non-Compliance”

A couple of days ago, I read this news story entitled, “Dying Black Teen Denied Heart Transplant Due Partly to Low Grades and Troubles With the Law.” Fifteen year old Anthony Stokes has approximately 6 months to live without a transplant, and the Transplant Board is assessing his case based on his academic and administrative records. My first thought was, “this confirms how little Black lives are valued.” But I dug deeper and ask myself hard questions. Why would the Transplant Board deny him a heart on the basis of his low GPA and previous truancy? Why are grades and compliance to institutional norms enforced by state agencies (schools, here) used to determine the worthiness of a Black youth’s life? In the context of “teach-to-test” (linked with higher incarceration rates) and “zero-tolerance” policies, what does “compliance” as a measure of worth entail?

Moreover, this demonstrates the fallacies of exceptionalism and respectability. If we uphold the exceptional few who excel in institutions that teach compliance (those with perfect attendance records, no tardiness, high GPAs), we are implicitly accepting the ways in which youth who are alienated, disengaged (engagement is reciprocal) and less “compliant” within public schools and other State institutions are devalued and shuffled through the school-to-prison pipeline. Here, I allude to the more insidious side of the school-to-prison-pipeline; how poor grades and truancy are conflated with “trouble with the law” or “criminality” to justify incarcerating, killing or simply denying POC youth access to life-saving care.

Here, it is important to note linkages between school suspensions and expulsions (both of which disproportionately target students of color- especially Black students) and the detention of young people in “juvenile facilities” (studies show that youth locked in juvenile facilities are twice as likely to end up in adult facilities by age 25) According to a 2003 study, rates of suspension have increased dramatically in recent years—from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million in 2000.[1] Furthermore, African-American students represented 18 percent of the public school populations in the US, yet, a report by the U.S. Department of Education found that African-American students accounted for 35 percent of suspensions and 39 percent of outright expulsions.[2] Overall, African-American students are three times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts. Skiba et al found that African-American boys were referred to school administrators’ offices more often than boys of other groups for minor “offenses” like littering, making noise and failing to sit still.

Now, what happens to suspended and expelled students? Where can they go during the day without being arrested for truancy? What community support is available to suspended and expelled students who may not have a parent, guardian or care-taker to watch them during the day? How are schools making sure that these students keep up on their coursework (that is, assuming that they are learning effectively in classroom settings at all)? How are schools working to keep suspended and expelled students engaged, and preventing them from dropping out  being pushed out?

I ask all of these questions in light of Attorney General Eric Holder’s 12 August 2013 speech, in which he said:

“Beyond this work, through the Community Oriented Policing Services – or “COPS” – Office, the Justice Department is helping police departments keep officers on the beat while enhancing training and technical support.  Over the last four years, we have allocated more than $1.5 billion through the COPS Hiring Program to save or create over 8,000 jobs in local law enforcement.  In the coming weeks, we will announce a new round of COPS grants – totaling more than $110 million – to support the hiring of military veterans and school resource officers throughout the country.”

Questions of hiring veterans trained for “war zones” inhabited by “combatants” for domestic police forces aside (what happens as police forces become paramilltary forces?), it is important to note that Holder is alluding to a push for more police officers in public schools. The securitization and militarization of schools is hardly conducive to learning- particularly for students of color and students from low-income households/areas (which are already subject to more policing, State surveillance and intervention). In fact, a recent study showed that contact with law enforcement officers increased the likelihood of youth committing crimes. If this is the case, what does placing more “school resource officers” in public schools mean for those youth most vulnerable to the school-to-prison pipeline? Mind you, this is in the context of a massive push for more police presence in public schools. For example, 450 bills (termed “School Safety Legislation”) have been proposed nationwide since December 2012, most of which cite the Newtown, Connecticut school shooting as a justification.[3]

Attorney General Eric Holder went on to say:

“ And, through the Department’s Civil Rights Division and other components, we’ll continue to work with allies – like the Department of Education and others throughout the federal government and beyond – to confront the “school-to-prison pipeline” and those zero-tolerance school discipline policies that do not promote safety, and that transform too many educational institutions from doorways of opportunity into gateways to the criminal justice system.  A minor school disciplinary offense should put a student in the principal’s office and not a police precinct.

First note the militarized language- “allies”- used to denote collaboration between State institutions. Why is this militarized language necessary to discuss policies regarding the disciplining of students in State schools? This takes us back to my side point about one of COPS’ stated goals- the hire of veterans- those specifically trained for “war zones” and engagement with “combatants.” (Notably, there is a rhetorical shift toward describing domestic communities as “war zones,” which arguably, function to justify the transformation of police forces into paramilitary forces. For example, see the slang term “Chiraq“, which refers to Chicag0.)[4]

Notably, this excerpt also elides the lived reality of students in schools with “school resource officers.” In these settings, a lack of cultural competency (e.g. understanding cultural differences in “play”), coupled with institutional attitudes toward students of color, students from low-income households and students with disabilities leads to the increased likelihood of school-based arrests, most of which are for non-violent offices such as “disruptive behavior.”[5] The fact of the matter is that we have cases like Michael Davis, a 5 year old Black boy with ADHD who was handcuffed with zip-ties and charged with assaulting an officer, or a 7 year old Latino boy who was handcuffed and interrogated for 10 hours by officers over a school lunch money dispute ($5!).

I say all of this to say that it is an absolute travesty that 15 year old Anthony Stokes has been denied a heart transplant on the basis of his low GPA and previous incidences of truancy. There is no excuse for devaluing the lives of young people of color, people with disabilities, and people from low-income households on the basis of “non-compliance” in State institutions.


There is another disparity to consider: most organ donors are people without health insurance, and most organ recipients have insurance. In her article, journalist Rania Khalek quotes Dr. David Ansell, Chief Medical Officer of Rush University Medical Center: ““20 percent of organs come from uninsured people, but around 1 percent of organs go to uninsured people who need them.” She writes further, “A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Transplantation by researchers at the Emory Transplant Center in Atlanta, Georgia, found significant racial disparities throughout the organ transplant process even after controlling for demographics.”


Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston has agreed to put Anthony Stokes on the transplant list following a media backlash.


  1. Hampton Institute, “School-based Restorative Justice as an Alternative to Punitive Zero-Tolerance Policies”  http://www.hamptoninstitution.org/restorativejustice.html#.UgqIWZK1Fsn (accessed 13 August, 2013)
  2. Study Links High Stakes Testing to Higher Incarceration Rates http://therealnews.com/t2/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=767&Itemid=74&jumival=10458 …  (accessed 14 August 2013)
  3. “Sagging  Pants, Hypercriminalization, and School Push-Out” http://www.usprisonculture.com/blog/2011/09/30/sagging-pants-hypercriminalization-and-school-pushout/
  4. “Standing with Incarcerated Children” http://www.usprisonculture.com/blog/2013/07/30/standing-with-incarcerated-children/
  5. Juvenile Arrests in Chicago – Key Findings from Two New Reports http://chiyouthjustice.wordpress.com/2013/08/05/juvenile-arrests-in-chicago-key-findings-from-two-new-reports/ …
  6. Truth-Out, “The Police State Mindset in Our Public Schools” http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/18147-the-police-state-mindset-in-our-public-schools (op-ed)

“For example, when high school senior Ashley Smithwick grabbed the wrong lunch sack—her father’s—on the way to school, the star soccer player had no idea that her mistake would land her in a sea of legal troubles. Unbeknownst to Ashley, the lunchbox contained her father’s paring knife, a 2-inch blade he uses to cut his apple during lunch. It was only when a school official searching through students’ belongings found the diminutive knife, which administrators considered a “weapon,” that Ashley realized what had happened and explained the mistake. Nevertheless, school officials referred Ashley to the police, who in turn charged her with a Class 1 misdemeanor for possessing a “sharp-pointed or edged instrument on educational property.”

Tieshka Avery, a diabetic teenager living in Birmingham, Alabama, was slammed into a filing cabinet and arrested after falling asleep during an in-school suspension. The young lady, who suffers from sleep apnea and asthma, had fallen asleep while reading Huckleberry Finn in detention. After a school official threw a book at her, Avery went to the hall to collect herself. While speaking on the phone with her mother, she was approached from behind by a police officer, who slammed her into a filing cabinet and arrested her. Avery is currently pursuing a lawsuit against the school.

In May 2013, seven students at Enloe High in Raleigh, North Carolina, were arrested for throwing water balloons as part of a school prank. One parent, who witnessed police slamming one of the arrested students on the ground, was also arrested for attempting to calmly express his discontent with the way the students were being treated.”

  1. Hinton Rowan Helper (ed), (1868). “The Negro in Negroland’ the Negroes in America, and Negroes Generally…” (On the criminalization of Black people, with quotes from Presidents Jefferson and Lincoln) http://archive.org/stream/negroesinnegrola00helpiala#page/n3/mode/2up
  • Apparently, the first few chapters use colonial and colonialist anthropologist/ethnography notes regarding Africans- mostly fixating on their supposed cannibalism, nakedness and licentiousness.
  • BUT, the later chapters are worth perusing for a historical perspective on the criminalization of Black bodies in the United States.
  1. Michael Rocque, “Disproportionate Minority Discipline: Does Race Matter?,” American Journal of Education 116, no. 4 (2010): 557-581
  2. Michael Rocque and Raymond Paternoster, “Understanding the Antecedents of the ‘School-to-Jail-Link’: The Relationship between Race and School Discipline,” Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 101, no. 2 (2011): 633-666

[1] American Academy of Pediatrics, Committee on School Health, “Out-of-School Suspension and Expulsion,” PEDIATRICS (Vol. 112 No. 5, Nov.2003), p. 1207. See also: Johanna Wald & Dan Losen, “Defining and Re-directing a School-to-Prison Pipeline,” NEW DIRECTIONS FOR YOUTH DEVELOPMENT (No. 99, Fall 2003), p. 11


[2] Scholars’ Strategy Network. “Key Findings: Unfair Punishment at School can Push America’s Minority Students into Troubled Lives” http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/sites/default/files/ssn_key_findings_rocque_on_race_and_school_discipline.pdf (accessed 13 August 2013)

[3] Education Week, “School Safety Legislation Since Newtown” (June 2013) http://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/school-safety-bills-since-newtown.html (accessed 13 August, 2013)

[4] US police forces have budgeted for tanks, drones, riot gear http://www.alternet.org/story/151528/why_do_the_police_have_tanks_the_strange_and_dangerous_militarization_of_the_us_police_force …

Here’s the list of 2011-2012 drone license applicants (filed w/ the FAA) https://www.eff.org/document/2012-faa-list-drone-applicants …

Here’s the FAA’s Drone Authorization List, which shows which city police forces may have drones https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2013/02/faa-releases-new-list-drone-authorizations-your-local-law-enforcement-agency-map … (Feb 2013)

ACLU Report: “The Militarization of Policing in the US” http://www.aclu.org/militarization 

[5] ACLU, “Locating the School-to-Prison Pipeline” http://www.aclu.org/files/images/asset_upload_file966_35553.pdf (accessed 13 August, 2013)


  1. Brilliant analysis that the State pretends its fighting against the system! & at the same time invokes a military image of “allies” through the introduction of police into schools based on the absurd concept that the the police like the rest of the State is fighting against its own institutional policies. So in a single speech atty general Eric Holder instituted a new police program “community oriented police services (COPS)” which would simultaneously increase the number of police officers in public schools AND combat the school-to-prison pipeline!!!

    but we’re so loyal to the system we can’t even see what’s in front of our eyes. thanks for this!!!

  2. “There is no excuse for devaluing the lives of young people of color, people with disabilities, and people from low-income households on the basis of ‘non-compliance’ in State institutions.”

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. It is so rare to see people with disabilities included in these kinds of analyses, and it’s a shame, because we have to deal constantly with these very compliance issues, both in school settings and in medical settings (and often, the line between the two is very blurred, given how pathologized disabled bodies are). It’s the tyranny of normalcy at work, and it affects anyone who is not white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, heterosexual, middle-class, Christian, and normatively sized. In one way or another, that’s most of us. It would be good for all of us to get together on this one day. I sometimes feel that we are all fighting these battles separately, over and over, and that we don’t have the kind of solidarity we need.

    1. Hey Rachel!

      Thank you for reading and commenting! I made sure to include ableism b/c I have experience with it myself. I am hearing-impaired, and as a result, the public school system was all too eager to relegate me to “special ed” and treat me differently, rather than work with me and treat me as a whole person with different abilities. And the fact of the matter is that students with disabilities- learning, behavioral or physical- (esp. students of color) are disproportionately targeted in school disciplinary practices.

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