The School-to-Prison Pipeline: How Evanston is Dea...

The School-to-Prison Pipeline: How Evanston is Dealing with a Threat to Its Black Youth

Photo credit: Aclu.socal

Upon first glance the juxtaposition is ridiculous. If anything, the two words seem to repel each other like magnets of the same pole.

School and prison.

While they may seem to have nothing in common, the same very real threat that the school-to-prison pipeline poses for Black students also sews them together. And Evanston public schools are definitely not exempt from the issue.

As of 2012, about 40 percent of black men don’t earn a high school diploma and of that, almost 60 percent will be incarcerated during their lifetime. Evanston Township High School’s graduation rate is above this average and yet black students are still the least likely to graduate compared to other ethnicities.  The pipeline may be thought of as a track formed by a mixture of policies and practices. Racial inequalities, inadequate education, ineffective zero-tolerance policies and multiple other factors create an atmosphere in which at-risk students are pushed out of classes and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. And it happens at multiple stages.


Phase One: The School

“Even if they come back from the case they were convicted of society says ‘you mess up once that’s it’… they are sentenced to a life with a scarlet letter on their chest” – Patrick Keenan-Devlin, The James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy

The journey through this system begins like so many others, with a simple initiation and a few harmless incidents.

“I think the systematic things that happens, and it’s subtle with the school-to-prison pipeline, is that it starts early in the kid’s life, like in the third grade,” said Morris “Dino” Robinson, founder of Evanston’s Shorefront Legacy Center.

As a black man and product of Evanston schooling, Robinson knows first hand the issues created for black students. According to Robinson by the time students enter into high school many of the implementations of the pipeline are already set in motion. At the elementary school level, it happens under the veil of diversity.

In the 1960s, Evanston opened Foster School, a primary school modeling a new mold of desegregation. Children from predominantly white areas of Evanston bused into the Fifth Ward, the predominately black ward, to attend the school, thus creating a more integrated district. It functioned as such until 1979 when the district board permanently it shut down due to drops in enrollment. The Fifth Ward is still the only ward without an elementary school.

That same year the Evanston Human Relations Commission released a report analyzing the repercussions brought through losing the institution. They found the burden of desegregation through busing to be placed primarily on black students, who were four times more likely to be bused outside of their communities. Furthermore they said the change to have eliminated a “primary keystone” in the Fifth Ward community.

“We’ve decided we like integration so we devalue African American students in their own school and their own neighborhood… for the benefit of other students,” says Cicely Fleming, president of the Organization for Positive Action and Leadership (OPAL).

Fleming acknowledges how this integration is central in promoting diversity in schooling, but she also points out how diversity doesn’t directly lead to equitable education. Her justification is found at Evanston’s high school.

Evanston Township High School is the only public high school in the city and belongs to its own district, District 202. After years of heavy academic tracking, ETHS superintendent Dr. Eric Witherspoon vowed to change the system as soon as he gained the position in 2006.

“We were literally predetermining students’ success in high school and what kind of education they would get based on one test one Saturday morning in December of their eighth grade year,” he said.

Witherspoon’s solution was the Earned Honors program now in place. Instead of students immediately separating into preset honors tracks the first year, all freshmen students are enrolled in the exact same English, biology and history courses. Throughout the year they are tested four times to determine if they will move on to honors classes their sophomore year. Furthermore they are allowed to progress into the more difficult classes at any time pass their first year. They literally earn their honors.

“When I arrived here 11 percent of students were in AP courses. Last year in the first class to be in [Earned Honors] all the way through… 70 percent of the kids had taken advanced placement,” said Witherspoon.

Considering 43 percent of ETHS is white, this rise in AP enrollment insinuates an increase in students of color in honors courses as well. On the surface, such an improvement would mean a break in the pipeline. But again, a diverse classroom shows to be insufficient.

OPAL gathered statistics from 2014 quantifying the reality of Evanston’s pipeline in the school system. Despite the changes through Earned Honors, only 37 percent of Black seniors at ETHS were doing math at grade level, while six out of ten Black ETHS juniors did not read at grade level. This deficit in education is only the first step in explaining the issues facing Black students in Evanston.

Phase Two: Into the System

“The criminal justice system is no place for anybody but especially not for children… Every kid should be treated like a kid. And every kid should get the chance to learn from their experiences.” – Maya Dimant Lentz

In 2014 88 percent of all youth jailed in Evanston were Black males. As such, the actual policing of high school students is pivotal in completely understanding the pipeline.

Within schools this regulating happens through suspensions. At ETHS it’s usually used as a last resort to discipline a student in violation of school policy. But even as a final measure suspensions cause serious damages.

“An educationally challenged student is three times more likely to be suspended, a suspended student is three times more likely to drop out of school and drop outs are three times more likely to be jailed,” says Patrick Keenan-Devlin, deputy director and staff attorney at the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy.

As a lawyer for underprivileged youth in Evanston, Keenan-Devlin’s clients are typically those labeled with the supposed behavioral issues schools deem worthy of suspension. And while ETHS has reduced the number of suspensions since 2006, the remaining statistics are still racially disproportionate. In 2014, the high school suspended 595 students. Of them, 438 were Black.

“No denying it,” said Superintendent Witherspoon. “It’s disproportionate and it’s very problematic for us.”

However, even if ETHS were to completely eradicate this issue, there still remains the safety officer. The Evanston Police Department had a unique relationship with the high school in that some of its officers patrol the halls. While this constant presence may not be of consequence to some students, for others it represents an immediate escalation of once small infractions.

“An educationally challenged student is three times more likely to be suspended, a suspended student is three times more likely to drop out of school and drop outs are three times more likely to be jailed,” says Patrick Keenan-Devlin, deputy director and staff attorney at the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy.


Maya Dimant Lentz, another youth lawyer for the Moran Center, frequently deals with cases from ETHS as a result of these officers’ presence. For her, this connection between school and incarceration lies in one simple question: what happens to a student who steals a smartphone on campus?

She first explains how in her high school, such an infraction would simply mean her parents were called to the school. She’d be scolded and at the worse she might have been suspended as well.

“But what happens to my kids at ETHS?” she said. “First of all the police are gonna get called because the police are at the school. Now a police report is filed.”

She notes this involvement as involving the law in a situation that might have been solved internally. But after a report is filled the crime takes on a different tone. Since smartphones typically cost more than $500 (an iPhone 6s is actually $649 before tax), the student is now charged with a felony rather than the less repercussive misdemeanor. If they are found guilty, that felony is now on their record.

A minor with a record is immediately marked with disadvantages. A felony can affect their standing for public assistance in the future, can negatively impact the person they live if they are on public assistance, and can lessen their chances in gaining college acceptance.

“Something that happened perhaps in the 12th grade will follow you, literally, the rest of your life,” Dimant Lentz.


Phase Three: Finding a Way Out

“You can’t program your way out of it. You must make structural changes.” – Dr. Eric Witherspoon, District 202 superintendent

As a young black male growing up in Evanston, Morris “Dino” Robinson remembers being stopped by the police “without fail” every year and being accused of casing the majority white neighborhood his family lived in.

Robinson says he was able to succeed in high school in spite of these constant microagressions because of his parents’ support and guidance. But his answers may not be applicable to all. How Black youth in today’s Evanston reconcile the issues of race and the school-to-prison pipeline is still up for debate.

For those already in the system, there’s Dimant Lentz and Keenan-Devlin at the James B. Moran Center. This organization provides free legal representation and advice to youth and their families. Support in the form of preventative measures can also be found in youth organizations such as Project SOAR, Y.O.U., and Family Focus. But again, the most sustainable solutions begin with the school system.  

“We have to give [Black students] the resources, opportunities, and support they might not normally have,” said Pat Savage-Williams, the school board president at Evanston Township High School.

Savage-Williams says the high school is striving to discourage the “deficit model” of education that typically draws on racist conclusions to decide what is best for the student in question. Instead they are trying to give students resources that empower them to self-mobilize so to speak. There are programs such as ETHS’s academic study centers available in all core subjects, middle to high school transition coordinators, and freshman advisory study halls.

But for people like Keenan-Devlin, who see the consequences of the pipeline on a daily basis, what’s being done now simply isn’t enough.

“The most important word in the school-to-prison pipeline is school,” he said. “There’s still a lot we can do as a community and as a school district to address inequality.”



  1. Tonya

    10 April

    What an eye-opening and inspirational article. I am going to provide a copy to all the black youth in our church community, most especially the young men and boys. Great essay!

  2. Lonnie Wilson

    16 April

    I love this but as we think about stopping it we must remember close to 5 generations of black men have been eaten by this system. We have to clean that as well. Retraining and employment opportunities are a must. Those men are the fathers and grandfather’s of many . This is a fracture in families and it won’t just dissappear.

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