St. Catherine professor explores ‘school to prison pipeline’ for black children


Some of professor Nancy Heitzeg’s comments are startling, even incendiary.

Take this: “What used to be a trip to the principal’s office now sometimes becomes a trip to the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center,’’ she says.

What the St. Catherine University sociology professor and co-chair of their Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity Program is talking about is the so-called schoolhouse to jailhouse track, resulting, she says, from certain too broad educational policies that penalize students of color way more than their white peers and lead to school suspension or expulsion. Others call it systematic disadvantaging of kids.

“We get these vague and expansive policies,’’ she says, that explain in part the racial disparities. Nationally, the expulsion and suspension rate for black kids is 3.5 times higher than white kids, and in the state of Minnesota it’s more than four times higher for black than white students.

Community Sketchbook focuses on the economic and social challenges facing communities, especially low-income communities and communities of color, and how people are trying to address them.

It is made possible by support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Minneapolis Foundation, and some Minneapolis Foundation donor advisors.

Community Sketchbook articles may be republished or distributed, in print or online, with credit to MinnPost and the foundations.

Alienated from school and with nothing to do, these children too often get into trouble with the law and end up incarcerated, she says.

One crucial question she asks is this:

“What lens is that disruptive behavior seen through? I could see white Jimmy and say, ‘He must have ADHD and we have to send him to the school psychologist and there must be some way to medicalize his behavior.’ We see black Jamal and there is a tendency to criminalize.’’ 

Heitzeg will expand on the disparity issue when she teaches the class “School to Prison Pipeline, How We Lost a Generation” on Aug. 9. Hers is one of 45 classes and events on a wide variety of topics being offered by St. Catherine University for their Summer Chautauqua. Courses cover art, literature, human trafficking, writing, science, religion and other topics. The Chautauqua runs Aug. 8-15 as a kind of brain camp for adults, with classes costing $20 each.

“A mountain of research” substantiates that suspension and expulsion rates are not related to “differential bad behavior” but to “differential responses” from the educational system, Heitzeg says.

To dig deeper into the issue, check out this report released by the U.S. Department of Education earlier this year:

“African-American students, particularly males, are far more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their peers. Black students make up 18% of the students in the [Civil Rights Data Collection] sample, but 35% of the students suspended once, and 39% of the students expelled.”

The national survey included more than 72,000 schools serving 85 percent of the country’s school children.