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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Scholars discuss solutions to school-to-prison pipeline

By Ricky Rath

She met a 21-year-old man at a Lincoln prison who was persuaded by his friend to rob a liquor store when he was 14 years old. He wanted to support his mother who was working two jobs while he wasn’t legally allowed to work.

Sabina E. Vaught, a leading scholar in the school-to-prison nexus, shared this story with the audience at Western.

He was arrested with state and federal charges and received a juvenile sentence. He was released years later and continued school, received an internship and had a child.

But he was re-incarcerated because he didn’t know his federal terms of release. Vaught told this story as an example of harmful systems in the United States can target young people of color.

Students of marginalized racial identities are being pushed out of public schools and into criminal justice systems. This is also known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Fraser Hall 102 was filled with nearly 170 students, faculty and community members who came together to learn about the roots and efforts of dismantling the school-to-prison nexus on Thursday, Feb. 22.

Sabina E. Vaught and Erica R. Meiners discuss the issues and history of the school-to-prison pipeline (or nexus) // Photo by Ricky Rath

“School-Prison Nexus: Building Freedoms, Resistance, & Communities” was an event put on by Justice Speaks series and Western’s Women Gender and Sexuality Studies. It was also co-sponsored by 10 other departments and offices at Western.

Professors Erica R. Meiners and Sabina E. Vaught are leading scholars of the school-to-prison nexus and were the featured guest speakers at the event.

Tactics such as zero tolerance policies, suspensions and expulsions for infractions of school rules are disproportionately used on students of marginalized identities and leads to being pushed down a pipeline into the criminal justice system, Vaught and Meiners said.

Additional factors include lack of resources for students and schools with inadequate resources may begin depending on school resource officers instead of teachers to maintain discipline, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Vaught and Meiners spoke about their past experiences working with communities, schools and children.

Meiners is professor of education and women and gender studies at Northeastern Illinois University. Meiners discussed issues in Chicago neighborhoods including policing, public schools, mental health and funding.

“Chicago is spending $95 million on a new police academy, but we’re closing public schools and can’t fund mental health services,” Meiners said.

Vaught is a professor, chair of the education department and director of women, gender and sexuality studies at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

One of the stories she shared was of learning that an 8-year-old child was in a juvenile facility with a pending charge for playing with fire outside of his mom’s house.

A higher police presence was assigned to that specific neighborhood after a crime geographic information system map of the city was created. An officer was sitting in his patrol car and took the child into custody and away from his mother.

Meiners believes using an abolition framework and reform could be a start to a solution for a problematic trend. Meiners said The abolition framework involves movements for decarceration, elimination of certain drug laws, and re-direction of public resources.

“I think abolition is a thoughtful approach, it doesn’t mean just end, it means begin. You end something to begin something,” Sabina E. Vaught said.

Meiners hopes this framework opens the opportunity for necessary questions.  

“Part of the work to build abolition is what we need to dismantle, what we need to change, and what we need to build,” Meiners said. “We need to dismantle systems that do harm, and I would put capitalism within that.”

The audience was also given a chance to ask questions to Vaught and Meiners during the final 20 minutes of the event.

Sophomore Siri Beckmen said she normally attends events similar to this and liked the question and answer segment the most as the speakers answered audience questions directly.

Some of the questions touched on the topics of undocumented students, teacher involvement, support and college administrations.

Junior Ana Santos said she heard about the event through her human services classes.

“I honestly loved the event, especially because I’m learning about the prisons systems in one of my classes,” Santos said. “A lot of what they talked about correlated with what I was learning in class and it was great to hear information that I didn’t know about.”

A community panel and forum was hosted with Vaught and Meiners at the Bellingham Chamber of Commerce at 5 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 23 as the final part of the event series.



  1. I have taught reading 45+ years and recognize the limited success of current reading instruction.
    My book addresses the overlooked factors (cognitive/ perceptual, linguistic and affective) that interfere with reading mastery. It also presents novel strategies to ameliorate their impact.
    I am a teacher, not a writer. However the too many years of watching students struggle has driven me to share the methods I’ve created. Basically, the work recognizes the innate potential of many struggling readers and provides tools that hone association and reasoning to “break the code” (unlike most current reading programs that overly focus on rote memory and drill).
    Simply put, Time Is Not On Our Side. We can not leave students in a state of confusion and frustration and expect them to remain tolerant of the system. America’s drop-out rate and overall poor International Academic Standing confirm that.
    I am devoted to changing the current prognosis (School to Prison) of too many students. My methods expedite learning to read; my hope is to get the information “out there”. Yours may be an appropriate channel to do that. C. Nickie Simonetti, PD


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