CMS’s treatment of black boys creates school-to-prison pipeline

Community member Tammy Hill tells the audience “the school to prison pipeline needs to end” at a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force town hall meeting in 2015.
Community member Tammy Hill tells the audience “the school to prison pipeline needs to end” at a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force town hall meeting in 2015. File photo

Guests at my hotels often ask me how long I’ve been a “charlatan,” when they actually mean “Charlottean.” It’s an innocent mistake, but there is a bit of irony in it. We brand ourselves as a progressive, New South city, vibrant and full of opportunity. We do so knowing we have significant issues we need to overcome involving economic mobility (folks born poor stay poor), our murder rate (black men killing black men) and diversity within our schools (poor kids going to school with poor kids). A charlatan is an imposter. Irony indeed.

If ever we get around to dealing with all this, we’ll know where to start: Our education system is the canary in our coal mine. It’s warning us in no uncertain terms what’s coming.

We’ve turned our schools into prison pipelines. America leads the world in juvenile incarceration. We incarcerate almost 350,000 kids annually, costing more than $5 billion. And Charlotte’s not immune.

We call it “tough on crime.” But it turns out tough on crime means tough on poor black kids. The numbers just don’t lie. We’ve created zero-tolerance policies in our schools that have criminalized behavior. Of the almost 1,400 arrests at CMS last year, 300 were for assaulting personnel and the rest were for drug possession, anything deemed a weapon, fighting and even truancy. Hammer meet nail. And there’s no evidence we make any attempt to differentiate between children who need help and those who need punishment.

Billy Maddalon

As context, kids who get in fights today are arrested and charged with assault. I got sent home. Kids who get smart with a teacher are charged with disorderly conduct. I had to write “I will not be disrespectful” 500 times. And kids charged criminally in the community are presumed guilty by CMS and punished. Even if they’re a model student, they’ll likely be sent to an “alternative” school for something that didn’t even happen at school.

A statistics professor once told me, “What’s counted, counts.” I’ve learned if you don’t count what’s important, then the temptation is to make what you do count important. They are not the same thing. By multiple measures, CMS ranks among the best public systems in the nation. Although some might argue that given the competition, that’s like being the tallest dwarf in the room.

By all measures, it’s clear CMS discipline policies disproportionately affect black males. I’m not suggesting that’s intentional. The intention is certainly to keep our schools safe. But sometimes well-intentioned policies have unintended consequences. While young black boys are not the only problematic students, they are at the top of the list of consequences, intended or not. CMS is only 38 percent black, yet within CMS, if you set aside the arrest statistics, 94 percent of kids at the so-called alternative schools are black, 84 percent are male, and 99 percent are in poverty.

Why? My guess is they either tick us off or we fear them. And what do we do with kids whom we fear? Increasingly we lock them up. Just like we locked up their mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles. And in case you’re thinking problem solved, keep in mind learning continues whether a child is in a jail cell or in a classroom. Instead of learning the square root of 4, they learn how to cook crack.

What we’re doing isn’t working. We shouldn’t be arresting kids whose brains aren’t finished developing and we shouldn’t be arresting kids who scare us or tick us off. We should only be incarcerating people who are demonstrated threats to public safety. Because it’s clear incarceration isn’t a deterrent for juveniles. It’s only a highway into a justice system that barely has a footpath out. But this so disproportionately affects poor black kids, I worry that the political will doesn’t exist to address it.

I’m a white guy in a suit who drives a Buick. Maybe I’m not the perfect person to bring this up. Regardless of who the messenger is, it’s clear our future is at risk and our brand is in question. It’s time for us to stop locking up so many of our black students and sending them into lockdown schools. It’s time to be Charlotteans and not charlatans.