Black Boys Prime Targets for School-to-Prison Pipeline

Dorothy Rowley | 3/13/2013, 9 a.m.

School Officials Blamed for not Taking Truancy More Seriously

Truancy in the District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) system is a serious issue that has spiraled out of control - particularly when it comes to the end results for many black male students.

Their truancy numbers are significantly higher in comparison to other student populations, and instead of schools officials insisting upon counseling or detention to deter their behavior, they're relying on suspensions, expulsions, and law enforcement to deal with the problem. Those actions, in effect, often put young black males on the school-to-prison pipeline.

"The challenge of going to school is two-fold," Umar Abdullah Johnson, Ph.D., said during a recent appearance on "UDC Forum," a locally-televised outreach project of the University of the District of Columbia. "The first aspect of the problem relates to the school itself. Public education was not designed to successfully prepare African-American boys for a life of success," said Johnson, a certified school psychologist and author of Psycho-Academic Holocaust: The Special Education and ADHD Wars against Black Boys. "Public education, as it is today, largely functions to prepare our boys for a life of prison and incarceration."

Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, 43, said in November during an anti-truancy hearing with members of the D.C.Council, that chronic-absenteeism has reached the crisis point, with more than 40 percent of students at Anacostia, Roosevelt, Ballou and Spingarn high schools having missed at least 30 days from classes in 2011 due to unexcused absences.

Students are generally classified as truant after missing 15 days of unexcused absences.

Since truancy rates impact graduation rates, Henderson has been under increasing pressure to develop initiatives that counter truancy in order to ensure that three-fourths of all District students graduate on time by 2017.

"A lot of people speak of the problem as being the parents, [students'] disinterest in [school] and the influence of hip-hop. The primary reason our young men are not learning is because the schools aren't designed to teach them, and the personnel necessary to reach them are simply not being hired," Johnson said. "Our boys not only need men in the classroom, they need black men in the classroom."

Employing black male teachers has always resonated with Steve Jackson, principal at Dunbar Senior High School in Northwest.

"It's important to have the presence of black male teachers because of the immediate bonding factor," Jackson said, adding that "there are a lot of black male teachers" in our building. "In many instances, these teachers come from the same community as the students, so they're more able to relate," he said. "They're able to speak a language to students that they can relate to, and in effect help close the achievement gap."

One of his teachers is 23-year-old Leland Kent, a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Kent, a native of Philadelphia, said he's well aware of the needs of young African-American boys growing up in inner cities where in many cases, school attendance takes a back seat.

"I became a teacher because I felt I could reach these kids," said Kent, who launched his career at Dunbar two years ago. "I had instructors who took me under their wing, mentoring and nurturing me, so I [understand] that if the students can't relate to their teachers, the system [can lose them]." Kent, who teaches math, said he makes it a point to know all of his students' names, where they sit in class and to acquaint himself with family members. "And, I've seen where [my concern] has made a difference reducing truancy at Dunbar," he said.