Last month, we talked about the school to prison pipeline. In this series, we’re going to dig into this concept in more detail. It’s one of the most essential pieces to stopping recidivism for good, as the best way to stop someone from returning to prison is to ensure that they don’t go to prison to begin with. And our schools, especially in poorer areas, are basically factories for prison inmates.

Just to refresh your memory, the school to prison pipeline is the system where children are treated in a manner either already similar to prison or given punishments which all but ensure that they end up in prison.

Some examples of this are things like excessive use of suspensions, utilizing school resource officers to enforce classroom discipline, and a host of other factors. Whereas these often sound “normal” to many people, the way in which these punishments are used and enforced — especially in poorer communities with higher minority populations — are anything but.

But for now, we’re focusing on solutions. One of the best solutions to implement is an increase in the social workers and mental health professionals that work in schools, even down to the elementary school level. Many people are skeptical of this approach at first, not realizing the depth of the problem. So, let’s get into how these professionals are an essential part of the plan for fixing the school to prison pipeline.

1. They can identify problems early.

This is a concept that people seem to readily understand when it comes to issues like diseases — early detection is key to successful outcomes. This is also true with mental health issues and home life problems, especially where children are concerned.

Unfortunately, in poorer school systems, the reality is that there are a lot of children who have undiagnosed mental health issues. Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and many other issues can develop in children as well (sometimes we forget this). And for those families who can barely afford to put a roof over their heads, often times healthcare is a non-starter — even for programs like Medicaid. If a parent is working multiple jobs to make ends meet, then they have to sacrifice income in order to even take the child to a healthcare professional.

This is the case with many children, as well, because the truth is that mental health disorders can often just look like disobedience. So a child can often go quite a while with a debilitating condition, only to find out later that a behavioral issue could have been addressed with proper medication and treatment. But, for this to happen, it requires a mental health professional to diagnose the issue.

In terms of social workers, it’s just as important to identify home life situations which impede the child’s learning or behavior in school. For instance, abuse, malnutrition, and other issues can cause a significant strain on a child’s ability to learn. The key with a social worker, as opposed to school administrators, is that they can take the time in their jobs to actually work with families to solve issues.

2. They have a robust toolkit for helping to solve problems.

Social workers and mental health care providers are professionals. They don’t simply read blogs and talk about their opinions, they have spent their lives reading the literature, understanding the root causes of issues, and are solely dedicated to improving the lives of those placed in their charge.

This is often thankless work, performed by courageous people with a heart for service to others. And they know their stuff.

Only a qualified medical professional can really determine what’s going on in terms of diagnosing a child’s behavior. What lay people do is simply look for initial warning signs so that issues can be bumped up to the proper individuals.

It could be anything from having a mental health problem to a child coming to school hungry. And as we know, if they’re hungry, they aren’t learning. We have to ensure that our schools stop simply being used as daycare, and ensure that our children are receiving a quality education.

The fact is that average people aren’t qualified to do that, only to report possible issues. So, if school is the only chance that most of these children will ever encounter someone who can make a difference in their lives, then that’s where we have to place the professionals who are qualified to detect the problems.

3. They get teachers back to teaching.

At the end of the day, teachers are there to teach. Now, in schools all over the country, teachers are being asked to go above and beyond their job descriptions on a regular basis. They’re having to act as psychologists and social workers, which isn’t what they’re qualified to do. Furthermore, every minute they have to spend like that is a minute taken away from a child’s education.

Teachers should be applauded for the courageous work they do in our schools. But if you really value teachers and truly appreciate them, then they have to get the support they need. Simply saying “good job” for going above and beyond does nothing to help the problem. And, in fact, it actually contributes to the attrition rate of teachers, which is higher in the US than most anywhere else in the world.

The truth is that, if we don’t provide teachers with resources they need — such as qualified mental health professionals and social workers — we can’t really say honestly that we support them. Words, without actions, are hollow. It’s time to make positive change that’s real, effective, and lasting.

For more information on the school to prison pipeline, or on how you can make a difference in stopping recidivism today, make sure and go here.

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