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Fazson Chapman (far left), a senior at Urban Prep Academy from Bronzeville, shares his plans to attend the University of Wisconsin after being called on stage with his classmates by Dr. Michael Lomax at a discussion hosted by the United Negro College Fund.

Community leaders debate how to stop ‘school-to-prison pipeline’

by Bryan Lowry
Feb 13, 2013

Entering gritty Harper High School in Englewood you must first pass through a metal detector, then by a security guard, then a Chicago police officer. Heading up the stairs to the second floor you’ll need a security guard to unlock a metal gate, and then at the top of the stairs, another security guard.

This sounds more like a prison than a school. Last year 29 Harper students were shot or killed. It is one of many Chicago Public Schools that has a daily police presence.

In a posh ballroom at the Hyatt Regency in the Loop on Wednesday, Tim King, the founder of Urban Prep Academies, a charter network, brought up Harper as an example of how Chicago’s gang epidemic has harmed education.

King was one of several participants in a discussion held by the United Negro College Fund regarding the educational crisis facing the African-American community, which has a graduation rate 28 percentage points lower than whites in Chicago, according to the UNCF.

“These young people don’t join a gang because they want to join a gang,” King said. “They join a gang because they have to join a gang in order to make it from their home to the end of the block without at getting shot at.”

Fazson Chapman, an Urban Prep senior from the Bronzeville neighborhood, said he had been pressured to join gangs but he was able to resist.

“I had a great household. My mother and father raised a good child and told me about peer pressure, and what to stay away from,” he said.

The issue of violence was at the forefront of the discussion from the beginning. Dr. Michael Lomax, UNCF president and moderator of the discussion, began his introductory remarks by remembering Hadiya Pendleton, the teen slain in Chicago after performing at President Obama’s inauguration.

All of the speakers agreed on the importance of creating a safe school environment. However, there was not a consensus about how to accomplish this and whether the increased police presence has been positive for Chicago schools.

Andrea Zopp, president of the Chicago Urban League, was skeptical of whether these security measures were effective or beneficial to the educational environment.

“The idea that law enforcement’s going to solve our violence problem, anybody who believes that is mistaken,” Zopp said. “The question is what are we going to do to engage people to get them back on the path that’s not jail? We have a huge school-to-prison pipeline for our black men.”

Zopp said CPS should invest more in restorative justice programs, which are directed toward solving problems rather than punishment, and smaller alternative schools, which she said have been proven to deter violence.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the district’s CEO, was scheduled to participate in the discussion but was unable to attend. Annette Gurley, who oversees instruction for CPS, went in her place.

“[Lomax] continued to ask the question about the police and was that the [proper] response,” Gurley said after the discussion had concluded. “Well, that’s a good reactive response. But where we need entities like UNCF and the community, where we need to get their involvement is on the front side of things, in terms of the programs that provide counseling for the students.”

“Let’s find a way to get them an art program or basketball program with the counseling embedded in it. Let’s give them what they need through what they’re interested in. UNCF can help us do that,” she added.
Gurley cited positive behavior support and conflict resolution programs as ways the district was addressing the issue of safe school environments in addition to security measures.

King also criticized the impact of police in schools.

“We have young people getting arrested inside schools in Chicago in alarming rates,” King said. “We have an epidemic, I think, where schools will say, ‘Oh no, this child, this student, has done something wrong. Call the cops.’”

“In my mind it makes much more sense to invest in programming that will support that student and keep him or her from being arrested or ending up in jail, than it does to invest in more security to police the school,” King said.

Urban Prep Academies do have metal detectors and security guards, but do not have police officers present, said Chapman, one of nine students attending the event.

“With police I think it would kind of affect the environment because it’s really showing the students that they’re not safe,” Chapman said. He hopes to attend the University of Wisconsin and study journalism.

Lomax ended the discussion by going off script and inviting each of the Urban Prep students onto the stage to introduce themselves and share their collegiate goals. Throughout the event Lomax emphasized the importance of preparing students to get them through college. The UNCF has adapted its longtime motto, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” by adding a second phrase, “but a wonderful thing to invest in.”

“I struggle with what the right balance is on this issue,” Lomax said. “One of the things we know is that when we put a lot of police in schools, we start criminalizing adolescent behavior.”

“And who do we do that for the most? Little black boys. And it starts in pre-school,” Lomax said.