My home in Bakersfield is not more than a 30 minute drive from any of the six prisons in Kern County. As a formerly incarcerated person, I work hard every day just to be seen, heard and simply to live my life like everyone else. I fight against the barriers to work, equal rights, public forums and recreation spaces — you name it — that my own community puts up against people like me, so much so that I sometimes feel that I can’t breathe.
Through my own childrearing and the work I do with other system-impacted families as President of All of Us or None-Bakersfield, I know that our black and brown children go to school where the vast majority of their teachers do not look like them nor relate to their struggles and aspirations. Much too often, schools treat our children’s normal behavior as delinquent or criminal.
In this environment, how do we make sure that schools do not dump our children into the pipeline to prison? How do we guide our children to a future where they thrive, engage with their families and community and live a good life?
First, schools must do no further harm. It pains me that it took a lawsuit against Kern High School District just to try to reduce the district’s unfair suspension and expulsion practices that hurt our black and Latino children the most. But students and parents must understand that the lawsuit is an important harm reduction tool. The lawsuit prompted the district to agree to use a behavior guide designed to curb unfair and harsh discipline against our children. Also, under the lawsuit settlement, the district must use alternative responses to student behavior such as Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS). Under this approach, educators reward positive behaviors, and for the few children who need more help, educators use targeted, individualized interventions and supports, not one-size-fits-all discipline.
Using these alternative approaches and tools instead of defaulting to discipline and punishment make sense. You don’t use a hammer to fix everything in your house; otherwise, you break your house.
But having new rules on paper alone will not bring the change our children need. Students and their families must learn about their rights under the settlement and get the support they need to speak out and advocate for their children when the district isn’t living up to its promises. All of Us or None trains parents and caregivers to do just that. And I know that educating people about alternatives to punishment works.
Not long ago, I saw some teacher complaints on social media about student behavior. Virtually all of the “solutions” the teachers posted were harsh discipline tactics. But after I shared information with them about alternative approaches that their school district is supposed to equip them with, the teachers thanked me and said they would take steps to put those approaches into practice.
Second, the district must once and for all embrace the science on childhood and brain development and apply it in all its policies and practices. Developmentally, 14, 15 and 16 year olds are children. The human brain does not fully develop until around age 23. To throw a child into the prison pipeline for a mistake (or behavior that is misperceived as a mistake) at age 13 or 14 is cruel and ignores this science. Yet this is what is happening, especially in the district’s continuation schools.
The district has the same obligation to educate our children in continuation schools — many of whom are in or have been in the juvenile system — and to prepare them for higher education and employment as it does any other child. And the district has special obligations to help these students transition back into regular school and to graduate. Yet the continuation school graduation rate in the district is woefully low—just half (45 percent) of the district’s overall graduation rate of 89 percent in 2018 at one of the continuation schools. College-going statistics of district students in continuation schools are even more dismal; in fact, in the 2017-2018 school year, not a single student in continuation school in the district fulfilled the curriculum requirements to apply to a UC or CSU. This neglect must end.
We must demand that the district eliminates the “dumping ground” culture and replace it with a learning environment that students experience as supportive, safe and judgment-free. Adopting this culture shift has been effective in other districts.
Third, the district must achieve meaningful racial diversity of staff and provide effective systemic mentoring for its students. According to district high school teacher Jesse Aguilar, social science research shows that teachers of color tend to have high expectations of students of color and are less likely to see behavioral problems in those students. This is encouraging and shows why the district must do much more to recruit and hire more teachers of color. The need for the district to be better and smarter in these efforts is especially imperative for black students whose suspension rates remain stubbornly high despite progress toward lowering suspensions overall.
Creating formal mentorship systems is another way to correct the district’s lack of black role models and other role models of color. Continuation school best practices formally connect students to adults in the community, outside of the campus walls, who can support and guide students toward education, work and positive life opportunities.
I believe All of Us or None could play a crucial role in this regard because our members have walked the same path as many students in the district. This makes us credible and relatable mentors to students going through similar struggles and striving to graduate and to have good post-graduation options. This type of deep and culturally relevant and responsive mentoring is essential to break the curse of the intergenerational incarceration cycle.
I urge all who care about these issues to come to a community forum we and our partner organizations will hold from 6 to 8 p.m. Sept. 4 at Mill Creek Christian Church at 1660 S St. in Bakersfield. Join us for dinner and presentations and share your experiences, frustrations, and ideas. Let us make our voices heard — our children are counting on us.
Ucedrah Osby is president of the Bakersfield chapter of All of Us or None, a grassroots civil and human rights organization fighting for the rights of formerly and currently incarcerated people and their families.