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Too often today, schools have become incubator for tomorrow's criminals

Editor's note: This is the first of three excerpts from a major study conducted by the Council on Crime and Justice of Minnesota's criminal justice system. The study, "Justice, Where Art Thou? A Framework for Minnesota's Future," generated a report, recommendations for improvements, and a collection of community essays and research papers. Today's installment highlights the report's "Framework for the Future" and includes the first of three essays commenting on study findings. Today's essay is by Dr. Bill Green, Minneapolis superintendent of schools.To see the entire report, visit the group's website.

In today's schools we deal with children in age only. The challenges faced in classrooms have engulfed our youngest students. They are battle-hardened — unafraid of bad grades, inappropriate behavior, or teacher remonstrations. That is our new reality.

Schools have become incubators for corrections. Research shows that minority youth are disproportionately the recipients of discipline, setting off a chain of disenfranchisement and formal consequences labeled the "school-to-prison pipeline." When children fail to achieve in school, we most often hand them off to the correctional system where they find far fewer opportunities to succeed. Indeed, state leaders can predict future prison populations by gauging student success in third grade. If a child fails to read by third grade, every indicator points to future correctional activity.

Society as a whole pays many times over. We forego tax revenue because the student is unable to earn a decent living. We pay for incarceration for those who turn to crime because they couldn't find decent-paying jobs. But we pay the dearest price for squandering the future of millions of young people.

Reporters who cover the crime beat often cover the same ground in education. Ann O'Connor, formerly of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, once told me that in both arenas you see the same people, places and situations, over and over again. And that just doesn't give our kids much of a chance. They become an easy target to predatory gangs, and survival instincts trump education almost every time.

The real tragedy is that children would like to be children. They want to grow up at a pace most of us enjoyed and took for granted. An increasing number of our children experience lives that are more complex than they were even 10 years ago. That, in turn, creates a greater challenge for education. Teachers risk further isolating the child by seeking additional resources (i.e. special education) to help that child overcome challenges.

In a community where the streets are sometimes very dangerous, parent choose, understandably, not to have their child walk those streets. It's not that they feel that the school isn't a safe environment or even a valuable educational experience. It's the threat posed by getting to school.

Understanding that their children might encounter danger, parents sometimes hope to empower them by actually giving them weapons for the journey to school and back. Many times, students forget about the knife in the backpack or pocket, and it ultimately falls out in the school safe zone. The teacher may realize that it wasn't brought to school as a threat but has no alternative under the Zero Tolerance law to do anything but report the incident. Subsequently, the principal is forced to suspend these students, thereby casting them right back into the very streets that the parents sought to protect them from in the first place. So a law that everyone can agree was of noble intent — to keep weapons out of schools — creates more trauma for the student when all is said and done.

The ideal education model uses the community for all types of support structure. Ironically, in communities of crime and poverty, the school becomes an island by separating from the community in order to create a safe environment for learning. The school must then go it alone without the support of the usual assistance, oftentimes operating on a reality that parallels their own.

Here are some examples:

At one school, a student was late for class because he waited for the police to arrive at his home so that he could translate for his parents about the details of a dead body found on their property. Does that kid come to school ready to learn?

At another school, students practiced drills in the event that they ever heard gunshots. When it ultimately occurred, the children did as trained, but the ensuing discussion was riveted around the caliber of the weapon that was fired. Are we teaching kids the right stuff?

But even those who come ready to learn are at risk by societal influences. At one of our high schools, there were two African-American students in IB (International Baccalaureate). The teacher tutored them together on the weekends but eventually warned me that he would soon lose one of the kids. It seems his buddies waited for him outside, pressuring the IB scholar to let loose and shoot hoops with them. The kid quit IB soon after that. Why? Because despite loving parents and strict school regimens, the streets beckon with a clarion call: We've got your back.

All kids want to belong to something that makes them feel special and secure, and the predatory nature of gangs finds their soft spots. These kids get callous to survive. A line has been crossed; being from the ghetto means willing to resort to violence. This was a neighborhood of 31 murders in one year. Why would we expect anything different?

Rancorous discourse has displaced civil discussion in even polite societies. Problem solving, compromise and resolution have been viewed as weak and therefore wrong.

It's no accident that the murder rate, escalating foreclosures, the achievement gap and poverty visit the same neighborhoods. These neighbors have a right to be angry. The system has let them down.

In visiting the juvenile detention center downtown, I learned that a number of kids were candidates for special ed. But a student who didn't read well, or at all, would prefer suspension over being labeled as special education. In effect, we created the culture of anti-education.

What a paradox! Public education, historically, was the institution that created the middle class. America was the place where people could get an education without having to pay for it. It used to be that only the elite had the resources to be educated, but public education meant that everyone had the opportunity to learn.

In the wake of the Civil War, when missionaries and abolitionists moved to the South to educate the freed men and women, they found that former slaves had already begun schools. If there were a slave on the plantation who had learned to read, it was being taught to others, even at great peril of being discovered. The antebellum society feared educated blacks because power might be commensurate with knowledge.

As a result of the work of these former slaves who were teaching their kids to read, there came a belief that society should educate all of its citizens. Poor whites also benefited from that spirit.

African-Americans have overcome some of the severest obstacles in their paths only to spiral down again, this time by more quiescent forces.

If we are to achieve in the future, our communities must offer opportunity. Schools are a reflection of the conscience of society. What society values depicts how well its institutions nurture all of its young, which, in turn, becomes an investment in a vital and enlightened future. But as telling as they are, schools cannot singularly transform society without the sustained and concerted will of a society that truly values transformation.

Simply put, if a society wants better, it must do better. Otherwise, fear will trump reason, leaving us with a future that is at once certain and insecure.

Dr. Bill Green is the superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, associate professor of history at Augsburg College and adjunct professor at St. John's University. He holds a B.A. in history, an M.A. in educational psychology, a Ph.D. in education and a J.D. Dr. Green also served on the Minneapolis Board of Education from 1993-2001 and was board chair from 1996-1998. He has contributed more than 30 articles to scholarly and popular publications.


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A Framework for the Future

Minnesota can become a safer place to live. But only if certain "key" developments occur. Listed below are the developments, expressed as goals, that we believe will be most beneficial in building a framework for strengthening public safety. They do so by making Minnesota a stronger, more just place to live for everyone. A Framework for the Future, one that will ensure a higher level of public safety through greater justice, has the following elements:

1. By 2025, 95 percent of all high school students will graduate on time regardless of race or ethnicity.

2. By 2020, at least 90 percent of all fathers, regardless of race or ethnicity, will be actively involved in the lives of their children.

3. By 2020, all people with a mental illness and/or chemical addiction will have an affordable and timely treatment option.

4. By 2015, Minnesota's justice system will provide full restoration for every victim and proportionate consequences for each offender within a correctional model focused on rehabilitation and redemption.

5. By 2012, all legal barriers arising from a person's criminal record will be eliminated unless the barrier is directly and proportionately related to a criminal conviction for a serious offense.

This is an ambitious framework, one that requires changes in public values and attitudes in order to create the necessary societal and political will to act. But with a strong, collective will in place, the strategies and action steps necessary to achieve each goal can become a reality, not just a possibility.


Want to add your voice?

If you're interested in joining the discussion by writing a Community Voices article, email Don Effenberger at deffenberger [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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