Native Sun News: Educators discuss school to prison pipeline

The following story was written and reported by Jesse Abernathy. All content © Native Sun News.

RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA -- In an age when violence in schools has become almost as commonplace as homework and pep rallies, the overwhelming response by public school administrators to such reactionary behavior by children has been one almost as detrimental – if not more so – than the behavior itself.

This application of extreme discipline is referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” It is “one of the most important civil rights challenges facing our nation today,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Specifically, the term is applied to policies and practices that force schoolchildren out of classrooms and into juvenile and criminal justice systems. More often than not, according to many published reports, such increasingly institutionalized strategies have been found to disproportionately target minority children throughout the course of their school years. Simply put, the school-to-prison pipeline refers to the alarming trend of criminalizing, rather than educating, America’s children.

And the Rapid City public school district seems to be no exception.

The district has come under scrutiny lately by some Native American parents for the ways in which it deals with disciplinary issues that arise among its salient Native American student population.

“All of us in education are concerned that we want to meet the needs of all students,” said Dr. Timothy M. Mitchell, Rapid City Area Schools superintendent, in an indirect response to these parental concerns. “Since coming to Rapid City, what is very apparent to me is that everyone in the district is very much working towards the best education possible for all students,” he said.

Mitchell, who has been district superintendent since July of 2010, seemed somewhat apprehensive about directly addressing the issue of the school-to-prison pipeline as it applies to the Rapid City school system’s Native American students.

“Without a doubt, (the school-to-prison pipeline) definitely does” exist within the Rapid City school district, said Hazel Bonner, longtime local advocate for Native American children, outside of the legal system. The school-to-prison pipeline is alternately referred to as the “rail-to-jail” phenomenon in more recent vernacular and literature, indicated Bonner.

Rapid City Area Schools have remained racially and economically segregated for quite some time and the situation worsens with each passing year, said Bonner, who holds a Juris Doctor but chose not to take the bar exam. Schools located in North Rapid, in particular, have very high minority populations, with American Indians comprising the largest minority group, she said.

Almost 90 percent of the non-white students enrolled in North side schools, including General Beadle, Knollwood and Horace Mann elementary schools, North Middle School and Central High School, are American Indians, according to information Bonner obtained from the 2010 South Dakota Kids Count Fact Book.

As delineated on its website, Kids Count is a national resource entity which compiles and publishes data pertaining to the status of children – such as education, health and economic well-being – on an annual basis. The project is funded by grants from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, based in Baltimore. South Dakota’s Kids Count grantee is located in Vermillion.

“The poverty status and minority status of students affects how they do in school,” Bonner said. Because Rapid City’s Native American students are an impoverished minority, “they get labeled and sucked up into the system and end up going to jail.”

Bonner is also a volunteer foster grandparent at NMS.

Central High’s principal, Mike Talley, an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, denounced the school-to-prison pipeline as a non-legitimate, overreaching application within the realm of student discipline.

“It does not characterize every student with a discipline problem,” he said. “The school-to-prison pipeline is a derogatory term that has no business in education.”

Native Americans make up 18 percent of the student body at Central, according to Talley.

“I don’t feel that (the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon) happens” within the Rapid City school district, said Stevens High School Principal John Julius. “There is an avenue for families to go through in the district if parents feel that their children have been unfairly disciplined,” he said.

“A discrimination (and) harassment policy is in the student handbook,” said Julius. “Parents sign that they understood it and communicate with the building level if they feel there is a discrimination problem.”

Julius also indicated that there are not presently a significant number of Native American students in attendance at Stevens, which is located on Rapid City’s West side.

Rapid City Area Schools have a combined total enrollment of about 14,000 students, as indicated on its website. Of this number, almost 3,000 are Native American, based on information obtained from the district’s Indian education department.

High school graduation rates for Rapid City Area Schools in 2011 varied drastically for white and Native students, according to district statistics from the South Dakota Department of Education. Nearly 90 percent of white seniors completed high school in 2011. In stark contrast, around 50 percent of Native American seniors graduated this year.

In a questionable response to student behavioral issues including school policy and non-school legal violations, truancy and increased dropout rates, the school district has developed and implemented an alternative high school system as well as a district-accredited educational program in collaboration with the Pennington County Sheriff’s juvenile services center, formerly known as JDC, or the juvenile detention center.

The ACLU claims that such an approach only serves to unfairly stigmatize and penalize the schoolchildren who generally end up hopelessly enmeshed within this misguided and seemingly inappropriate system of “education.”

The approach would seem to affirm the existence of the school-to-prison pipeline within the district.

Calls to both Deb Steele, alternative high school system principal, and Nicole Swigart, juvenile services center administrator, were referred by the interconnected programs’ secretary to Jr. Bettelyoun, Indian education director.

In response to the direct referral to him, Bettelyoun said, “It doesn’t matter.”

Bettelyoun, an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, called the school-to-prison pipeline analogy a “negative connotation towards kids, the Rapid City school district and families.”

“I don’t think it exists” within the district, he said. “Any youngster or individual who ends up incarcerated, it’s terrible that it’s gotten to that point, but I don’t think you can point the finger at the school district being the … culprit there of getting kids sent to prison or to jail.”

“That term floats around and I think we could take a look at the community as a whole, we could take a look at families, we could take a look at what goes on after hours,” said Bettelyoun. “Those are the issues that…need to be taken a look at.”

The American Indian education department was instituted by the Rapid City school district under the auspices of the federal government to provide academic and cultural support to Native students and their families. The program receives per capita federal funding for Native students enrolled within the district.

In conjunction with the Rapid City Police Department and the Pennington County Sheriff’s office, the district has law enforcement officers – referred to as “liaisons” – stationed at each of the middle and high schools on a day-to-day basis, said Tarah Heupel, community relations specialist with the RCPD.

Additionally, the district employs citizen liaison officers at each of the elementary schools, she said.

The apparent need for officers to help maintain law and order among schoolchildren signifies the district’s extremism in enforcing school rules and may serve to alleviate school administration and personnel’s fears and concerns rather than serving the best interests of the children these adults have been appointed to educate.

According to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, over 3 million students are suspended at least once each year and over 100,000 are expelled. U.S. public school discipline rates have never been higher – roughly double today what they were in the 1970s.

A request to Katie Bray, assistant superintendent, for non-identifying statistical rates of student suspension and expulsion within the Rapid City school district was summarily denied. “I think that’s not public information to protect our children,” she said.

The request was referred instead to Mitchell, who – subsequent to his initial interview – was out of town and unavailable for comment at press time.

A similar request to the South Dakota Department of Education for statewide student statistics was granted. The entire data securement process through the state takes about 30 to 45 days, however.

As suspension, expulsion and school-based arrests grow, racial disparities in discipline continue to widen. Despite a wealth of research on the harms of these exclusionary discipline practices and their ties to school pushouts, ever younger students are being suspended, expelled or arrested for matters that, prior to “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies, were once handled by a call home.

Zero tolerance refers to the practice of automatic expulsion of students for violations of school safety rules and was originally implemented to cover extreme infractions such as bringing a gun or other object that could be considered a weapon to school.

In 1994, Congress implemented the Gun-Free Schools Act as part of the Improving America’s Schools Act. The law requires that schools expel for one calendar year any student found to be in possession of a firearm at school. Although the law permits school districts to modify expulsion on a case-by-case basis, this provision is frequently overlooked in favor of less flexible policies that mandate automatic expulsion for all violations.

Many schools have expanded zero tolerance well beyond the arena of firearms or even lethal weapons. The prohibition of weapons in many school districts, both in South Dakota and across the nation, often include toy weapons and objects that appear to be weapons.

Such overzealousness on the part of school policymakers and administrators only serves to emphasize the criminalization, rather than the education, of students – or the funneling of students, especially those who are non-white, through the school-to-prison pipeline.

The emergence of zero tolerance policies in America’s schools over the last decade has been reportedly traced to the personnel drug abatement efforts of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Customs Service, which is now referred to as U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The notion of absolute sanctions against drug use in the military inexplicably became a model for schools that is applied to violence as well as drug use.

In recent years, anxious educators have become increasingly reliant on zero tolerance policies as a simplified, all-encompassing response to student threats of violence that relieves them of the need to exercise judgment and make reasoned decisions in response to these issues of student discipline.

The Rapid City school district does have a zero tolerance policy currently in place.

“Zero tolerance policies are one of the ways (Rapid City’s Native American students) get involved in the area’s legal system,” said Bonner. “These children, some as young as 11 and 12 years old, get much harsher sentences than adults and get sent to (Department of Corrections) facilities until they’re 21. Pennington County is really bad in that area; South Dakota is really bad in that area,” she said.

Bonner said she used to be involved with the Pennington County Disproportionate Minority Contact project, which monitored activity within the county’s juvenile justice system and collected and published data regarding the number of minority youth being shuffled through the system. In instances of juveniles becoming involved with the legal system, the initial involvement is referred to as a “contact,” not an arrest, said Bonner.

“A high percentage of Native youth are being taken from their families by the court system,” she said. “Around 70 percent of kids in the system end up in a DOC facility” as opposed to being sent to alternative school or drug and alcohol treatment.

Pennington County’s DMC project inexplicably shut down two years ago, according to Bonner. “I have no idea why it was discontinued. They changed the (juvenile justice) system so that it’s really secretive now. Western South Dakota was particularly bad about the number of minority youth being sentenced to DOC facilities,” she said.

The DMC initiative is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. According to the OJJDP website, DMC refers to the “disproportionate number of minority youth who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.” The initiative requires an “examination of potential disproportionate representation at all decision points within the juvenile justice continuum and implementation of data-based prevention and system improvement efforts to reduce identified disproportionality.”

“Because the juvenile justice system in Pennington County is allowed to be kept secret, it’s even harsher than it is for adults and a lot of Native American kids end up going to prison when they don’t have to,” Bonner said.

In general, one of the most important aspects in avoiding, or derailing, the school-to-prison pipeline as it relates to students is school-sanctioned inclusion of the family in a child’s education, said Danny Janklow, Horace Mann Elementary School principal.

“The stronger a relationship is with the family, the better the student does,” he said in circumventing the school-to-prison pipeline issue within Rapid City’s schools.

Talley echoed Janklow’s sentiment. “Students’ education is a partnership,” he said. “Parents, kids and the school need to work together to accomplish student success.” “Not every student with a discipline problem goes to prison,” said Talley.

Of the approximately 3,500 men and women presently incarcerated within South Dakota’s prison system, a little over 1,000 – or close to 30 percent – are Native American, according to state DOC data. Yet Native Americans comprise a mere ten percent of the total population of South Dakota, as indicated by the latest U.S. Census statistics.

Such figures are startling and may serve to underscore – and even legitimize for some – the existent complexities of the school-to-prison pipeline.

In tacit acknowledgement of the school-to-prison pipeline, Talley said, “What we’re dealing with here is what is being done across the nation.”

The so-called school-to-prison pipeline “points the finger unfairly at schools,” he said, bolstering Bettelyoun’s concern.

Calls to Valerie Nefzger, NMS principal, had not been returned at press time.

(Contact Jesse Abernathy at

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