By Dr. Katie Remington Cunningham, Research Director MNJRC
Photo credit: Tamika Garscia Photography
The term “school-to-prison pipeline” is prevalent in our lexicon yet vastly understudied. In particular, the experiences of young people trapped in the system are often misrepresented and misunderstood. The pipeline metaphor implies a single direction from school to prison. In reality, the process is a complex web of confinement, dehumanization, release, and recidivism.
Right now, we punish and confine young people who most need our support, and then when they are released from often horrifying spaces of confinement back into schools, we expect transformation and learning to happen. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.
As a graduate student, I worked with a diverse and dedicated team of scholars and practitioners to pilot an exciting - and in many ways remarkably uncomplicated - intervention to support youth in transition from the Alameda County juvenile detention center in Oakland, California to Oakland Unified School District schools.
Critically, we listened and learned from young people in this transition and paired our learning with research on bias and the power of relationships between young people and non-parent adults. First, we asked incarcerated students to identify a teacher or other adult in school and to describe what they would want their teacher to know about them, their goals and values, and what was hard for them that the teacher could help with.
What kids wrote was heartbreakingly simple. It boiled down to, “I’m a good person and I’m trying, but it’s very hard. Please help.” One child wanted his teacher to know, “I have a bad attitude and I get bored easily,” that he wanted “to stay in class,” and added, “I need more 1 on 1 time with the teacher because I don’t learn as fast as other kids.” Then, in a letter that thanked the teacher for their work and asked for their support of the child, we shared the students' self-introduction with the teacher they identified.
In a recently published study in Psychological Science, we show that when students introduced themselves in the letter, they were less likely to return to juvenile detention in the next term. In fact, absent the letter, 69% of the children had recidivated to juvenile detention by the end of the next term—a tragic finding. But when we delivered the letter, just 29% percent did.
The letter seemed to alleviate fears and open a path for teachers to connect with the student. One teacher said: “First thoughts, in complete honesty, would be, ‘Oh great,’ or ‘Why me.’ I would think about what problems he may add to my class. But, as I read more of the letter and see that [student name] CHOSE ME to be his mentor/confidant, I am immediately reminded that he is a child that has made some mistakes and wants to change. He deserves that chance, and, if I can, I want to help. Reading about his passions made me see him more as a person than just another student with problems.”
Absent the letter, teachers expressed fear and apprehension knowing a student was returning to their class from juvenile detention. One teacher explained: “I would be apprehensive, as I am unfamiliar with [student name’s] history—what led to him being in [a] juvenile detention center in the first place and how long was he in custody. For instance, did he commit a violent crime? Will he have outbursts? Will he be disruptive?”
With the letter, teachers felt more love, trust, hope, and respect for the child - values we can all agree are critical for any adult working with children. And that makes all the difference.
We are currently exploring how to scale up this kind of intervention and make it policy with three large districts in the Bay Area. Our initial study was small yet extremely promising. We need to learn more from our ongoing research, but the results suggest the transformative effect that teachers can have when they reorient toward relationships with their students, stopping a cycle of incarceration at a critical juncture.
Part of what excites me the most about this research is that from its inception, it was collaborative and connected to the community. As the Research Director for the Minnesota Justice Research Center, I am committed to ensuring the same approach with the work we do here in Minnesota. We knew the work needed to be replicated and understood in different contexts and this requires meaningful collaborations across systems. A research-practice partnership is vital for doing joint work at the boundaries, requiring researchers to embrace and consider messiness, variability, and humanity in our work and allowing practitioners space to think and connect action to theory and embrace the slower but deliberate pace of academic research. This is hard and not typical for university research because sometimes what you learn is that you need to keep learning. At the MNJRC, we are uniquely situated in the community and connected to brilliant and dedicated scholars both locally and across the country to enable us to do similar work.
The lives of young people are at stake. While we need much more transformative changes in how we think about justice in this country for young people and adults alike, we don’t have time to waste and must act while also shifting the narrative. This work provides a concrete and accessible way to foster a potentially life-changing relationship for young people involved in the justice system.