by Alisa Solomon
Dramaturg, Notes from the Field

Anna Deavere Smith was stunned when she first heard the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” a few years ago as she listened to a discussion among social justice experts in New York. She learned about five-year-olds being handcuffed for throwing tantrums, about older kids arrested for pranks. The sorts of mischief that once would have landed kids in the principal’s or guidance counselor’s office were now sending them swirling down the drain into the pipeline: into the criminal justice system. She set out to understand the plight of these children, using the unique and powerful form of documentary theater that she invented decades ago.

As she traversed the country, beginning in California and Pennsylvania, interviewing students, teachers, principals, mentors, advocates, judges, inmates, government officials, and more, the purview ofNotes from the Fieldexpanded. Smith arrived in her hometown of Baltimore to conduct more interviews on the heels of the death of Freddie Gay, one of hundreds of African American men to have died in police custody in 2015. She landed in Charleston, South Carolina after a young white man opened fire there on an African American Bible-study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Work on the play continued amid the terrible evens of this past July that saw the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the slaying of five police officers in Dallas, and that revealed, even more starkly in this divisive election year, national discord over not only the best policies for addressing social problems, but even over what the problems are. The pipeline gushes on in a context of racial disparity, gun violence, and racial profiling, a context in which – in the astounding words of Justice Sonia Sotomayor – an individual can become  “not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be catalogued.”

During her research, Smith saw how the punitive aggression of policing in poor communities of color lines up with young people’s experiences in local schools. These students are also contending with environments that are not conducive to learning: They are surrounded by violence and poverty, suffer from trauma and physical and mental health challenges, lack the self-regulation that school culture requires, and are bereft of hope and a sense of purpose. Often schools must cede disciplinary procedures to police officers stationed in their buildings through federal and local initiatives, even as guidance counselors and nurses are eliminated from school staffs due to budget cuts. Despite the commitment and expertise of dedicated educators, schools can become places where students encounter the same arbitrary, over-aggressive policing they face in their communities. Activists say that students come to perceive the school system as emphasizing control and punishment over a stimulating educational experience, and to sense that they are being prepared more for prison than for lives as engaged, imaginative, productive citizens.

As the nation begins to review policies that led to the mass incarceration that has made America the country with the highest prison rate in the world, government agencies have also begun to address the school-to-prison pipeline.  The U.S. Department of Justice has investigated — and even sued—several states for violating the rights of children funneled into juvenile justice systems for minor infractions. In 2014 the U.S. Department of Justice, along with the U.S. Department of Education, published guidelines aimed at both curbing harsh, discriminatory over-punishments imposed for school discipline violations, and fostering safe, inclusive and positive learning environments while keeping students in school. “By ensuring federal civil rights protections, offering alternatives to exclusionary discipline and providing useful information to school resource officers, we can keep America’s young people safe and on the right path,” said Attorney General Eric Holder when the guidelines were released.

Here in New York, recent reforms put into place by Mayor Bill De Blasio’s administration reduced the use of suspension and arrests in response to student discipline problems, while increasing restorative justice programs and de-escalation techniques, and eliminated suspensions altogether for kindergarten through second grade.

These steps have been taken in a landscape of entrenched, intersecting problems of poverty, racial disparity, trauma, overly aggressive policing, and mass incarceration. The more she spoke to Americans across the country, the more Smith was convinced that solutions will take a new civil rights movement, one that brings healing to struggling communities as well as equality and justice.