Teens Leading Change Project: Dismantling the School-to-Prison-Pipeline

Guest Blogger,
open stack of books on a table in prison

Since Fall 2020, the teen volunteers of the Robertson Branch have been participating in the Teens Leading Change (TLC) program by exploring inequalities in schools, particularly around the school-to-prison pipeline. Last year, the teens researched the topic by reaching out to various stakeholders and sharing information and experiences. This year, the teens plan to apply that learning towards doing a media project on this topic. Two of our teens share the story behind our project below:

We decided to focus on the school-to-prison pipeline for our Teens Leading Change project because it is an issue that affects all council members as students and also ties into the problems of systemic racism and poverty that plague our community. We have defined the school-to-prison pipeline as a series of policies and practices that lead to the mass incarceration of students. Minority students, those with disabilities, and/or those who come from a background of poverty are more likely to fall victim and enter the criminal justice system as juveniles. Once in this system, individuals will seldom get a second chance. Instead, they are caught in a vicious cycle of limited liberty and economic deprivation.

After identifying the school-to-prison pipeline as the issue we wanted to tackle, we began by doing research. We split the potential solutions into three main sources: non-teacher staff (school psychologists or counselors), teachers, and external (outside of school) organizations. We invited numerous speakers from these three groups to understand the issue from different perspectives better.

We began with non-teacher school staff. One of our guests was a restorative justice coordinator who spoke to the importance of having a restorative justice mindset in which teachers are trained to create a class community. By being community members, students are less likely to act in ways that disturb the class or jeopardize their membership. As a staff member of a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) school, this speaker described restorative justice in LAUSD as primarily preventative instead of punitive. We also examined the administrative aspect of the issue by speaking to the student board member of the LAUSD school board about how the board makes decisions regarding school police. We met with one of the LAUSD directors to further discuss the actions necessary to implement district-wide programs at LAUSD schools. We also heard from other organizations focusing on this issue, including Students Deserve, which persuaded LAUSD to reallocate $25 million from school police to programs providing resources for Black students.

Through sharing our own experiences with the school-to-prison pipeline, meeting with activists working to stop it in the Los Angeles community, and conducting research, we have worked towards our goal of raising awareness about what the pipeline is and how it affects students. As we interviewed teachers from the various schools represented in our Teen Council, we realized that we wanted to continue exploring the school-to-prison pipeline and its implications. Currently, we are working on a documentary film that centers on students and their experiences with the pipeline in hopes that this will further our cause of raising awareness about the school-to-prison pipeline and stopping it. We are so grateful for the resources we have accessed to conduct our research and are very excited to continue our project.

—Sarah L. is a high school senior, and Lila P. is a high school junior. Both volunteer at the Robertson Branch Library.

The Teens Leading Change initiative has funded and launched nearly 40 projects across 50 branches, including 8 projects across 11 branches that are happening now! These projects are related to Supporting Students with Learning Disabilities, Fighting Food Insecurity, Addressing Environmental Racism, Neighborhood Beautification, Financial Literacy, Addressing the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and Supporting Youth with Housing Insecurity.