No Exit: The School-to-Prison pipeline (Neglected Oklahoma)

Graphic courtesy of Rethinking Schools (

Camille Landry is a writer, activist, and social justice advocate who lives in Oklahoma City.  This post is part of our “Neglected Oklahoma” series, which tells the stories of Oklahomans in situations where the basic necessities of life are hard to come by.  These are real people and their stories are true (names have been changed to protect privacy).

Kyron Dean perches uncomfortably on a sofa in his grandmother’s home in Del City. “Still trying to get used to being free,” he says. He was released from prison two weeks before we met, after serving 30 months for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

“He was always a good boy. Polite,” his grandmother says. “He was raised to be respectful.” So how did he end up in prison? “It’s like they greased the chute. Back when he was in the 9th grade, Kyron got into a fight. Boys fight. Always have. No guns, no knives, just two boys tussling. Next thing I know he is locked up. That’s just crazy! It’s wrong.”

“Kids would just walk up and punch me,” Kyron says. “I got tired of it. Teacher didn’t do nothin’. One day I fought back.” He and the other kid were both suspended.

The following year Kyron got in a shouting and shoving match with two boys in the school cafeteria. A police officer stationed at the school arrested both children. The judge gave Kyron probation. His absences mounted up. Kyron was told to attend summer school or he wouldn’t matriculate. Family issues caused him to go live with his grandmother, across town from his former residence. He couldn’t get to summer school and ended up repeating a grade for the second time.

Kyron’s second time in 9th grade didn’t go much smoother. “I tried to join the football team but they told me I couldn’t play because of my grades.” He says he is pretty good at math but not so good at reading. “They put me in a special class for reading. Like I’m stupid or something.” He wanted to study auto mechanics but his suspension and poor grades worked against him, and he didn’t get accepted into the program.

Angry, struggling in school and trying to adjust to living with a grandmother whose strict rules were much different from his mother’s, Kyron was in a downward spiral. A counselor told him that he couldn’t graduate without raising his grades and passing a test and recommended that he be transferred to an alternative school. Kyron just stopped going to school.

“I tried to make him go. What could I do?” his grandmother said. “The police came here and said he had to go to school. I asked them what they expected me to do, beat him? Set him out on the street? I just had to give it up to God and pray he’d do the right thing.”

Kyron isn’t alone. His high school had a dropout rate of more than 9 percent when he attended. The numbers look even worse for young males of color: Just 64 percent of Oklahoma’s black and Latino males graduate high school.

Kyron’s suspensions and arrests fit with an approach to school discipline known as “zero-tolerance.  According to the ACLU, “Zero-tolerance policies criminalize minor infractions of school rules, while cops in school lead to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school. Students of color are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.”

Suspension or expulsion from school are strong predictors of failure to graduate. In Oklahoma City Public Schools, students who have been suspended or expelled have no right to an education at all. In some instances they may be sent to disciplinary alternative schools. Students may even be suspended or expelled for actions that do not occur at school.

Dropping out of school violated the terms of his probation, and a warrant was issued for Kyron’s arrest. He was standing outside a convenience store with other young men when a police officer approached the group and asked for ID. A warrant check landed him in the juvenile lockup. “We weren’t doing anything. The cop said he was looking for some dudes who did a robbery, but it wasn’t us. I got locked up for not going to school, but the school didn’t want me.”

Kyron was released and returned to his grandmother. “She told me I had to get a job or get in school. I couldn’t do school so I went to work.” Kyron worked at several fast-food places but couldn’t make any headway. “I’d work and work and on payday there wouldn’t be enough money to pay my gram’s light bill,” he said. He also had court costs to pay.

He turned 18 and started selling marijuana. “Yeah, I sold weed. I couldn’t make any money off of hamburgers.”

Kyron was arrested, tried and sentenced to prison, where he served 85% of his sentence. Now he is a felon. He hopes to find a job before he gets a parole violation and is sent back to prison for being unemployed.

African Americans in Oklahoma are 2.84 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possession of marijuana, even though blacks and whites consume marijuana at similar rates, according to a recent study.  Oklahoma ranks second in the nation for incarceration of African American males at 9.7 percent (the national average is 6.7 percent). Blacks are overrepresented in Oklahoma prisons and jails, representing 26 percent of the incarcerated population. Nearly one in 12 Oklahoma adults and almost one in four black Oklahoma men has a felony conviction.

“I was just a young boy, doing what young boys do. I got locked up for protecting myself in school. I feel like I got pushed out of school. I started selling marijuana to make a few dollars and got busted for that. Now I’m just another thug with no future.”

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5 thoughts on “No Exit: The School-to-Prison pipeline (Neglected Oklahoma)

  1. What I see here is the effect of zero tolerance policies gone awry. Couple that with with the refusal to attend the reading classes and you see the core of the problem. It is a sad situation. I would think some remediation and a GED would go a ling way here.

  2. Although this happens more to young men of color apparently, it happens to young men period. Zero tolerance is a menace to our kids’ well-being. Look at our drop out rate in general. Look at our rankings in education. There’s little teaching going on – just policing and testing. Where’s the zero tolerance for teachers who fail to get kids the basics? Where’s the zero tolerance for school counselors with no skills and no training? Where’s the zero tolerance for administrators who can’t improve their standings? All those folks get special passes in the blame game they play. Meanwhile, our kids are lost.

  3. While I agree that the system sometimes reacts harshly to criminal behavior, I find this young man’s failure to accept any responsibility for his actions to be a significant contributor to his current situation. In the same vein,the attitude of parents, grandparents, or other guardians that they are unable to get kids to do the right things flies in the face of considerable evidence provided by the majority who successfully guide their kids through the challenges of school and life every day. Parenting is hard work, requiring consistent effort and determination. Surrendering parental authority to let kids raise themselves is a recipe for failure. A system that overlooks poor behavior of either young people or adults because of ethnicity or economic background dooms them to lives of struggle and underachievement.
    Schools are vested with responsibility to help kids learn the behaviors that will make them successful in life. Cooperation, obediance, and diligence at tasks that are not always fun are a large part of that preparation. This young man made choices to reject all of these concepts. No wonder he didn’t get anywhere either in school or selling hamburgers.

    1. I call bull on that. As a black engineer. I was once IN HIS SPOT growing up. I went to an all white school and minded my business. Some kids decided they didn’t like me, and picked a fight. One literally held me down while the other took shots. I still managed to defend myself, AND go tell a teacher. Guess who got the suspension? Guess who didn’t?

      It was harrowing then, but I was smart enough to keep up with my school work, and my teachers were good. Nowadays, a teacher doesn’t care. Go to jail. How can you expect a 9yo to “take responsibility for his actions”? What did he do to kick-off this series of events? Have the nerve to be born with black skin? To h*** w/that, and you too, if you can’t be bothered to come off your white privilege empathize!

      But my point isn’t to get myself worked-up over this. My point is that black youths are vulnerable. We’re taught that we are worthless, unless you are lucky enough to prove otherwise. It starts at school, and ends in prison. One tiny misstep is all it takes for me and my children to end up in that person’s situation. (Or, if you live in Ferguson, dead.)

      You can’t expect someone to take responsibility for having the deck stacked against them. This kid has no education because he spent more time in jail, than in school, fell behind, and stayed behind. did you think someone was going to offer him a leg up? No one wants to be somewhere they aren’t welcome. Because at this point it’s not a “victim mentality”, it’s defeat.

      Maybe the NCLB waiver-loss will open up the opportunity to address why our school-to-prison pipeline is so…efficient.

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