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St. Catherine professor explores ‘school to prison pipeline’ for black children

Professor Nancy Heitzeg
Professor Nancy Heitzeg

Some of professor Nancy Heitzeg’s comments are startling, even incendiary.

Take this: “What used to be a trip to the principal’s office now sometimes becomes a trip to the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center,’’ she says.

What the St. Catherine University sociology professor and co-chair of their Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity Program is talking about is the so-called schoolhouse to jailhouse track, resulting, she says, from certain too broad educational policies that penalize students of color way more than their white peers and lead to school suspension or expulsion. Others call it systematic disadvantaging of kids.

“We get these vague and expansive policies,’’ she says, that explain in part the racial disparities. Nationally, the expulsion and suspension rate for black kids is 3.5 times higher than white kids, and in the state of Minnesota it’s more than four times higher for black than white students.  

Alienated from school and with nothing to do, these children too often get into trouble with the law and end up incarcerated, she says.

One crucial question she asks is this:

“What lens is that disruptive behavior seen through? I could see white Jimmy and say, ‘He must have ADHD and we have to send him to the school psychologist and there must be some way to medicalize his behavior.’ We see black Jamal and there is a tendency to criminalize.’’ 

Heitzeg will expand on the disparity issue when she teaches the class “School to Prison Pipeline, How We Lost a Generation” on Aug. 9. Hers is one of 45 classes and events on a wide variety of topics being offered by St. Catherine University for their Summer Chautauqua. Courses cover art, literature, human trafficking, writing, science, religion and other topics. The Chautauqua runs Aug. 8-15 as a kind of brain camp for adults, with classes costing $20 each.

“A mountain of research” substantiates that suspension and expulsion rates are not related to “differential bad behavior” but to “differential responses” from the educational system,  Heitzeg says.

To dig deeper into the issue, check out this report released by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year: 

“African-American students, particularly males, are far more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their peers.  Black students make up 18% of the students in the [Civil Rights Data Collection] sample, but 35% of the students suspended once, and 39% of the students expelled.”

The national survey included more than 72,000 schools serving 85 percent of the country’s school children.

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Comments (13)

Climbing those mountains

There’s no correlation – necessarily – between the “mountain of research” mentioned by Heitzeg and the conclusion of the USDOE report quoted two paragraphs later. The percentages cited in the report paragraph certainly COULD be the result of differential treatment, but those numbers could also be the result of differences in behavior.

The means of distinguishing between the two ought to be part of the article, and even better would be the provision of at least some small portion of that research “mountain.” My classroom experience over 30 years was that annoying behavior came from all races and genders, and the only student I ever summarily sent to a principal’s office was a white female.

Given the continued appalling lack of academic achievement by selected minority populations in the metro area, the notion of a “school to prison” track certainly seems worth exploring, and the fact that it’s even plausible ought to be disturbing enough, but I’d need to see more evidence of systematic “differential responses” before I’d be willing to jump on that particular bandwagon.


I would like to see the research that compares the results of similar behavior rather than simply making the statement that students are treated differently based on race rather than behavior. It's not terribly unbelievable that there is a difference in treatment in reaction to the same types of behavior, but I'm not willing to simply swallow that without some support.

Additional Information/Resources for Readers...

First of all thank you to Cynthia Boyd for this introduction to the issue.

.If this information is indeed "incendiary", then perhaps it should be. As Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, once said, "I hope what you read here sets you on fire."

The School to Prison Pipeline is a relatively new phenomena but it has been extensively researched for more than a decade now. The recent USDOE report is just the latest in a large body of work that yes will be discussed in further detail during the St, Kates class

Many factors contribute here, but federally mandated ":zero tolerance" policies and an increased police presence at school play crucial roles. Zero tolerance was adopted and expanded in lieu of data supporting either effectiveness or need. There is, however, mounting evidence that these policies do contribute to the school to prison pipeline. According to the Advancement Project (2005)

"Zero tolerance has engendered a number of problems: denial of education through increased suspension and expulsion rates, referrals to inadequate alternative schools, lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and racial profiling of students…Once many of these youths are in the system, they never get back on the academic track. Sometimes, schools refuse to readmit them; and even if these
students do return to school, they are often labeled and targeted for close monitoring by school staff and police. Consequently, many become demoralized, drop out, and fall deeper and deeper into the juvenile or criminal justice systems. Those who do not drop out may find that their discipline and juvenile or criminal records haunt them when they apply to college or for a scholarship or government grants, or try to enlist in the military or find employment. In some places, a criminal record may prevent them or their families from residing in publicly subsidized housing. In this era of zero tolerance, the consequences:"

Study after study nation -wide has indeed found racial disparity and evidence of differntial treatment in suspension/expulsion - despite no documented differences by race in "disruptive" classroom behaviors. African American and Latino youth are most at risk both in Minnesota and nationally. Hopefully this brief intro will inspire readers to attend the SCU mini-course or to read more on their own.

Some excellent resources to start with --


Advancement Project

Childrens Defense Fund

For a scholarly overview see - The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform by Kim, Losen and Hewitt

It is long past time to end policies such as these that do nothing but short-change the future.

take the class

I suspect the underlying data will be shared during the class mentioned in the story. Wish I had the time to participate.

What if the reverse is observed?

For example, what if we over medicalize young, black males? (How is medicalize even a word). Go into a school, and look at their medically diagnosed Emotional Behavioral Disordered programs. This is anecdotal, of course, but it would almost unanimously be black males. They are diagnosed, maybe medicated, but it is definitely made clear that something is wrong with them. Once put into a program, or labeled, it is almost impossible to get out. It's a death sentence. Instead of being understanding, we just diagnose because it is easier. Instead of a kid just being angry, and dealing with it, we label them "oppositionally defiant". Instead of just realizing young men are loud and energetic, we call them ADHD, and try to give them a pill.

Classes we'd love to see..

"Ms. Heitzeg will expand on the disparity issue when she teaches the class “Welfare state to Prison Pipeline, How We Lost 3 Generations”

Another white liberal

channeling Dr. Livingstone. It's fascinating how people who've never attended or taught in racially mixed schools or lived in racially mixed neighborhoods can pass themselves off as experts on all manner of societal issues and label them as racial in nature. Makes you wonder where they received their bone fides other than the college campus.

Real reasons

The primary reason that there are more black males in jail is that they commit more crimes. It is not because of race discrimination. Until we acknowledge the real reasons and develop programs around those real reasons, there will be more minority school suspensions and incarcerations.

You're 1/2 right, Rolf

I think it is true that black males commit more crimes, certainly more when compared to their percentage of the population, but it is also true that there'd be less of them behind bars if more of them could afford competent legal representation.

The legal system is a money game, there's no getting around it; justice has a price.

Definitely part of it

Good legal representation can certainly keep you out of jail. And probably a larger percentage of blacks in jail are in jail without cause than whites that are in jail. In other words, more blacks are CONVICTED of crimes than whites, and more are probably convicted because they can't afford proper representation.

However, that is not all the problem. The problem has nothing to do with whether blacks commit (more accurately, are convicted of) more crimes but WHY. The "school to prison pipeline" may be part of that. There are no obvious physical or mental differences between blacks and any other racial group in this country that would explain the statistical anomaly of incarceration rates. Basically, the higher crime rate has to be almost entirely a result of environment, not biology. If a child grows up to see all his role models in jail, it's not terribly surprising for that child to believe it a part of the culture or a rite of passage. And this so-called "pipeline" (presuming there's more to it than I read in this article or is available via sources less biased than provided in one of the posts), could very well enforce the environmental push toward incarceration.

Given Ms Heitzeg's Thinking....

...we can all conclude that racial discrimination against blacks and white Christian applicants is the basis for Jewish and Oriental applicants locking down all those Ivy League school admissions. It has nothing to do with cultural norms, study habits or IQ.

The real pipeline

The real pipeline IMO is 'home to prison". If you come from a home with no father, no computers, limited resources,english poorly spoken, limited tradition of reading, etc, you are more likely to end up in jail. It's more an economic issue(related to Tom Swift's comment) than a racial issue.

Please Do Not Confuse Crime Rates with Arrest Rates

Too many myths cloud the conversation about this very complex topic -- for starters see

I would also recommend --

Walker, S., C. Spohn, and M. DeLone. (2011) The Color of Justice: Race, Ethnicity and Crime in
America. 4th Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Alexander Michelle (2012)The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness NY: New Press or