On September 20, 2007, around 15,000 protesters gathered in Jena, Louisiana, to support six Black high school students facing serious criminal charges after an incident with white classmates. The Jena Six incident—and the school’s response—highlights the perils of the school-to-prison pipeline and the importance of restorative justice programming in schools.
The conflict began when a Black student sat under a tree where white students usually congregated. In response, white students hung nooses in the tree. Initially, the white students were meant to be expelled. But the school board later reduced their punishment to a short suspension. This incident ignited palpable racial tension within the school population, which was 90% white and only 10% Black (EJI).
The simmering tensions eventually boiled over on December 4 when a white student bragged about witnessing a fight where a white man had beaten a Black student. Several Black students overheard the comments and confronted him, which turned physical. The student suffered a concussion and other minor injuries, and six Black students were arrested and charged with aggravated assault. The charges against the Black students were upgraded to attempted murder, drawing national attention and sparking criticism of the school district’s response (EJI).
• Donate to Dignity in Schools, a nonprofit that works to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline by empowering schools to address conflict more equitably.
• Consider: If you didn’t already experience this, how would your life be different today if you were arrested for a felony in the 6th grade? What do you think you’d be doing today?
Protesters, including celebrities and civil rights activists, flocked to the school in solidarity with the students. The charges were later reduced, and five of the six ultimately received no jail time (EJI). But the Jena Six case symbolized the criminalization of Black youth and the significance of the school-to-prison pipeline.
Students of color face disproportionate rates of suspension, expulsion, and school-related arrests compared to their white counterparts. Black students, in particular, are 3.5 times more likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled (U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights). Disabled students are also more likely to be suspended or expelled than their non-disabled peers (ACLU). The types of infractions students are punished for also vary by race and ability. A study in 2002 found that white students were more likely to be disciplined for documentable offenses—like smoking, vandalism, and obscene language—while Black students were more likely to be disciplined for more subjective reasons, like disrespecting a teacher (Vox).
The school-to-prison pipeline is accelerated by the presence of police on school grounds. But at its core, it’s rooted in the idea of a zero-tolerance policy that many classrooms adopted in the 1990s to address “growing crime.” The Gun-Free Schools Act passed in 1994, was enacted to curb school shootings and dictated that anyone who brought a gun to school would be suspended for a year. With that, schools adopted strict policies with harsh punishment on any behavior deemed unwarranted.
The same people who are criminalized outside the classroom are affected inside, leading to these practices being unfairly enforced against marginalized students. As a result, many students who enter the criminal legal system because of an incident at school have only committed minor infractions, like absenteeism from school or non-compliance with teacher instructions (ACLU). It doesn’t help that as many as 80% of youth facing charges don’t have access to legal representation.
A student who’s suspended or expelled, even if they aren’t charged, is also more likely to enter our criminal legal system. The number of students sent home temporarily or permanently has grown alarmingly from 1.7 million in 1974 to a staggering 3.1 million in 2000 (ACLU). Left unsupervised and without constructive activities, these students are highly likely not to keep up with their studies independently or return to the classroom, if possible.
Although the events that affected the Jena Six happened over a decade ago, these injustices remain. And as conservative states rally against teaching about racism and our nation’s history in the classroom, we can imagine that the cultural competency of both teachers and students will decline, too. We must have more nuanced and culturally responsive ways to address these types of tension in the classroom without resorting to charging kids with a crime they didn’t commit and scarring them for the rest of their lives.