Cradles, Classrooms, Paddles and Prisons

By Michelle Chen Mar 03, 2009

The Children’s Defense Fund and other advocacy organizations convened in California last week at the National Cradle to Prison Pipeline Summit. The conference built on the progress of an ongoing campaign to raise consciousness about the criminalization of youth, barriers to opportunity that plague marginalized young people from birth onwards, and positive alternatives. CDF President Marian Wright Edelman called for “a concerted national effort to dismantle the prison pipeline by eliminating its root causes.” The Cradle to Prison Pipeline Campaign highlights racial disparity at every point in the pipeline. Black and Latino children are disproportionately vulnerable to poverty, low academic achievement, dropping out of school, and juvenile incarceration. And in some schools, violence is basically part of the curriculum. Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union recently detailed troubling patterns among the roughly 220,000 children subjected to corporal punishment in schools:

Certain minority groups—particularly African-American students—receive corporal punishment at disproportionate rates. African Americans constitute 17.1 percent of the nationwide student population, but 35.6 percent of those paddled. Even while overall corporal punishment rates have declined during the last 30 years, disparate rates of physical punishment of African-American students have persisted.

The report also points out, “Studies have linked corporal punishment to a failure to thrive academically and higher rates of school dropout.” Officials in 21 states have affirmed the beating of children as a sound educational practice, according to the report. Meanwhile, “zero tolerance” advocates seem unable to grasp the historical subtext that a Mississippi teenager captured in one terse comment: “It feels to me like we’re back in slavery.”