Column

Put youth who break the law where they belong — in a great school

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

School and city officials surround family members of Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill at a dedication of the new school housed within a youth jail. Attendees included Ismail El-Shaakir, principal of the new Travis Hill School, New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Mayor Mitch Landrieu as well as family members Dorothy Hill Martin (mother) and Leroy Martin (brother).

How many times have you heard, “If we put the money that we spend on jails into education, we wouldn’t need jails?”

True, but jails also can and should rehabilitate youth who are in secured settings. That’s why we need more and better schools in prison.

We can actually convert jails into schools from the inside out. Everyone deserves a quality education – even those who are incarcerated. Redirecting money from prisons can start with placing good schools inside.

A joint effort between the City of New Orleans and the Orleans Parish School District replaced the Youth Study School – a school in name only – with the Travis Hill School, which has real teachers, legitimate educational leadership and academic lessons that help students make sense of the world. The school is housed in the Youth Study Center, a youth jail, which recently underwent a $47 million makeover last year.

Youth who enter the secure facility for short or long stays can continue their educations or get back on track.

Related: Can a nonprofit turn around education in New Orleans juvenile detention facility?

Travis Hill School is named in honor of the New Orleans musician who served nine years in prison for armed robbery before dedicating his life to uplifting youth through music and entertainment. Hill died at age 28 while on tour in Japan, from a tooth infection that spread rapidly. Known more widely after his prison stint as Trumpet Black, Hill had a signature song, Trumpets not Guns, that seemed like it would become his most enduring statement of overcoming.

The Travis Hill School may supersede that.

We need prisons to act more like schools, but we certainly have to make schools feel less like prisons. Educators have allowed school resource officers (sworn law enforcement officers) and zero-tolerance policies to make many schools feel like dysfunctional jails.

The latest video of “safety” personnel to go viral showed school resource officer Ruben De Los Santos slamming a 15-year-old girl to the ground in a North Carolina school. The student suffered a concussion. The video reminds us of the school resource officer who slammed another female student for allegedly disrupting class for the improper use of a cell phone.

These non-educational actions only comport with zero-tolerance policies in schools that helped create the school to prison pipeline, which describes the channeling of students who’ve been charged with major or minor offenses into juvenile and criminal justice systems. Racism permits zero-tolerance policing to be cloaked as creating a culture of learning.

But walking on white lines doesn’t prepare black and brown students for college. It simply exposes them to jail culture. Alas, we need policing and more educating in prisons and schools.

Related: Treat students like future teachers, not criminals

Wherever there are children, there should be schools. There are far too many youth in secured facilities not to have real schools in them.

Every two years, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention of the U.S. Department of Justice completes a Juvenile Residential Facility Census, which includes the number of youth in secured facilities. According to the 2014 report, “The 1,852 facilities housed a total of 50,821 justice-involved youth who were younger than 21.”

This is the lowest number of resi­dential placements since 1975. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the rate of youth in confinement dropped 41 percent between 1975 and 2010.

Nevertheless, if we viewed youth – even the most challenging – as needing and deserving a quality education, we would seek to replace these jails with schools.

Jails are wasted spaces both literally and figuratively. Jails take up valuable land and demand tremendous financial resources to house challenging youth. By funneling challenging youth into them, we can insidiously refine or heighten criminal behavior.

Related: Judge says stop sending kids to my court for little things

In other words, a jail is a kind of school that we don’t want. Learning is always going to happen. But without rich, transformational spaces, jails are just incubators for unlawful activity.

All across the country, criminal justice activists are trying to reduce the number of beds in correctional facilities and end efforts to remove citizenship from black and brown people. Read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, then view the documentary 13th afterward, if you haven’t already.

Leaders didn’t set out to replace the youth jail with the Travis Hill School, but their efforts provide us a vision for diverting money from mass incarceration to quality education and building quality schools.

“We want to be the standard of excellence for education for all students that enter youth facilities,” said principal Ismail El-Shaakir at the schools’ dedication ceremony on January 11. “You think about New Orleans, Louisiana, we can be that standard for schools across the country that have the ultimate responsibility of educating students.”

Louisiana is the world’s prison capitol. The city and its schools contribute to that moniker.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been at odds with Sheriff Marlin Gusmann, who manages other jails in the city. They disagree about the size and scope of the correctional system. Landrieu sees the message of Trumpet Black and Travis Hill School as a “pathway back.” It’s hard not to see that pathway leading us away from building more prisons.

“And now in the city of New Orleans we have a pathway to prosperity, a pathway to peace, and it is through education,” Landrieu said at the school’s dedication.

Related: A path out of trouble

It’s easy to douse the hope and potential of Travis Hill School with the cold reality of politics, economics and the dysfunctional jails and criminal justice system in New Orleans. Earlier in the year, the Youth Study center was beyond capacity by 20 percent, according to news reports. There were also requests by city government officials to transfer some of the youth to adult jails that are run by the sheriff.

The City of New Orleans says it is committed to a 28-bed, $17 million expansion of the Youth Study Center to meet these acute demands. So if we must invest in jails, let’s focus on building the capacity of the schools within them. Of all the places where we need great schools, we need them in jails. Education is rehabilitation. Landrieu and school leaders ultimately can reduce the number of prison beds and people in them by replacing jails with great schools.

This change would constitute a switch from seeing jail as a period and place to pass time while incarcerated to one that might actually continue or restart one’s education.

We may not do away with jails entirely, but we can finally dismiss the idea that school is a privilege that eludes incarcerated youth.

Children shouldn’t have to wait to be imprisoned to see a concerted effort between a city and a school district to serve their social, physical and educational needs. I fear that giving more money to jails – even for schools – may contribute to the expansion of jails. We have to shrink the size of the system.

Instead, be mindful of what’s really needed to uplift youth – a great education. Let’s remove policing from jails and schools.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is the former founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. Previously, Perry worked in… See Archive