The AjA Project: Photography Programs for San Diego Youth

Limited Pathways: The School-to-Prison Pipeline


The school-to-prison pipeline has been named a “phenomenon,” “disturbing national trend” and “epidemic” by civil-rights advocates and media entities when referring to the issue of youth being funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the primary factors contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline are inadequate resources in public schools, zero-tolerance policies and overly-harsh discipline in schools, court-involvement, school policing and juvenile detention facilities.

What are the complexities of this issue and how do educators, parents, politicians, youth-advocates and community stakeholders address the systemic causes impacting “our” youth?


Tracy E. Thompson, Principal of City Heights-based 37ECB of Momentum Learning/Juvenile Court and Community Schools (JCCS), commented on the importance of instructional models that focus on the “whole student” versus segmenting youth into areas of scholastic aptitudes and deficiencies.

“When we take ‘history’ it is someone else’s story. It is ‘HIS-story.’ You take the words, ‘my story’ and those words put together is a ‘My-stery.’ To many students, when they’ve gone through our education system, they don’t know their story. I believe we can do a better job of bringing out each student’s story through our curriculum and through our instructional practices so that every (student) can feel valued.”


The Momentum Learning portfolio of schools provides a fully-accredited educational program for school-age youth who are either wards of the court or have been referred by social services, probation, or one of the 42 school districts in San Diego County.

“Through the implementation of innovative new instructional models that aim to serve the “whole student,” we are making strides to personalize our schools and classrooms to eliminate persistent achievement gaps for all significant student groups: African American, Hispanic, low socioeconomic, English learners, and special education.” – Momentum Learning Portfolio of Schools


“We have to make a difference in training our babies from elementary to middle school to high school. Prisons are based on the failure of 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade…if we don’t start changing the elementary education and giving folks a strong foundation, you are going to see a drastic drop-out rate by the 9th grade” –

Reverend Gerald Brown, Executive Director of the United African American Ministerial Action Council (UAAMAC) and Board Member of the San Diego Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

“The largest factor that plays a role in why the school-to-prison pipeline still exists is that people in our society still have the mentality that kids aren’t completing high school because they don’t want to,” said Reverend Gerald Brown. “We have to do something to change the mindset and hearts of people. Unless we alter people’s mindset, the school-to-prison pipeline will continue on.”

Zero-tolerance does not make schools more orderly or safe – in fact, the very opposite is true. In addition, zero-tolerance and the widespread use of suspensions and expulsions has thrown a disproportionate number of poor youth of color off the path of success and into the revolving door of juvenile and adult jails and prisons. While zero-tolerance and harsh juvenile sentencing have lost favor in some states, they still remain the dominant approach in others.” – Study by the Vera Institute

Educator and teacher trainer, Justin Arnold, has dedicated over seven years to exploring and understanding resources to mitigate the school-to-prison pipeline issue affecting American youth. According to Arnold, these resources include, but are not limited to “peer-mediation, conflict transformation courses and training for teachers, administrators and students, images of peacemakers, diverse student body, social justice, equity and inclusive education training, transformative and restorative justice models, small classrooms, co-teaching models, peer-education and hiring of more teachers who reflect the identity and experience of the student body.”
The California Endowment successfully executed a nine-month education and advocacy initiative in support of the 2016 #SchoolsNotPrisons music and arts tour traveling to 11 California Communities from August 2016 through April 1st, 2017.

The tour focused on supporting local campaigns against the overuse of punishment and incarceration, including issues such as harsh school discipline, immigrant and refugee detention, the high cost of youth prisons, the lack of services for the formerly incarcerated, and the impact of incarceration on families.

“We believe it’s time for a new vision for community safety centered on education, health, healing and investing in our youth.” – Mary Lou Fulton, Healthy California / The California Endowment

The California Endowment believes that civic and voter participation can build power in disinvested communities to improve the health outcomes of all Californians…As part of the (California Endowment’s) mission to improve the health of all Californians, #VOTA emphasizes the importance of youth voices and voting as a way to empower historically disenfranchised populations to build healthier communities. –
While the school-to-prison pipeline may seem like an incredibly large and daunting issue, there are areas where community-based advocacy is necessary and will most certainly be impactful.

Support “our” youth by becoming informed. Take it upon yourself to educate community stakeholders, attend conferences and trainings, host workshops, participate in the dissemination of relevant and fact-based social media postings, blog, flyer, create a campaign, listen, be responsible, and above all, care about “our” youth as if they were your own.

The AjA Project’s Speak City Heights Media Lab (SCHML) program is supported by the Speak City Heights collaborative partnership between KPBS, The AjA Project, Media Arts Center San Diego, Voice of San Diego and Mid City CAN.

SCHML provides participants with professional journalism and photojournalism skills to support the creation of media projects featuring community issues relevant to City Heights and local residents. This project is supported by the California Endowment.

Dave Mathisen

1 Comment

  1. Truly many of great information!

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