A Poisoned Pipeline
In my last blog post I mentioned that I’m pulling back from publishing YA fiction, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped writing. My current work-in-progress features a 15-year-old boy — my protagonist’s younger brother — who ends up in prison in the course of the story.
As a result, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the School-to-Prison Pipeline, defined as discipline policies and other aspects of the educational system that push students — disproportionately students of color and students with disabilities — out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system. The StPP can operate directly, for instance when a student gets into a fight and is immediately arrested and taken to jail. Or it can operate indirectly, when students are suspended from school and/or encouraged to drop out, at which point they run afoul of the law because of a lack of structure and opportunities and wind up behind bars.
The School-to-Prison Pipeline is especially relevant because of another pipeline that has made the news recently. At the beginning of 2016 the nation discovered that dozens of children in Flint, Michigan tested positive for lead poisoning as a result of that city’s switch in April 2014 from the Detroit water system to water from the highly contaminated Flint River. The river’s toxic chemicals led to corrosion in the pipes that leached lead into homes’ tap water. It is estimated that more than 8,000 children under six may have suffered lead poisoning, which causes brain damage.
Flint is among the state of Michigan’s poorest cities, with a majority black population. Since his election as governor in 2010, Republican Rick Snyder has placed a number of financially struggling Michigan municipalities under the control of emergency management administrations, superseding elected officials with administrators that he has appointed. Flint is one of those municipalities, ruled by an emergency manager since 2011. The emergency manager oversaw the water switch in 2014, implemented to save money. When residents complained about the brown and smelly water, they concerns were ignored until late in 2015, when officials described a state of near insurrection. The city switched back to the Detroit system, but the damage to the pipes, and the children, had been done.
Many have called for the resignation, or even the indictment, of Governor Snyder, members of his administration, and the emergency manager, who ignored the complaints of Flint residents and scientific evidence from doctors. The Federal government has declared a state of emergency, and since the beginning of January, the residents have received bottled water. Although the city’s water supply has been reconnected to the safe Detroit system, no one has announced plans to replace the corroded pipes that will continue to deliver lead-tainted water to Flint residents. And there are no plans yet announced to treat the residents who have suffered lead poisoning, either to remove the lead from their bodies or to offer long-term academic and behavioral support for potentially thousands of disabled children.
And here’s where the School-to-Prison Pipeline comes in. Despite the uproar, it is unlikely that Governor Snyder and his administrators will serve a day in prison. The children of Flint, on the other hand, will pay dearly for this crime — their own poisoning. While children with diagnosed disabilities make up 8 to 9 percent of the school population, they comprise 32 percent of the young people in the criminal justice system. Yes, one third of children in the StPP have diagnosed disabilities. The chances of a disabled child ending up in the prison system is even higher when the child happens to be poor, black, or Latino.
While the Black Lives Matter movement arose to protest police killings of young black men, the poisoning of Flint is another reason why we need Black Lives Matter. We need people to make sure the children who drank contaminated water for more than a year receive the medical and educational interventions they need now and for years into the future. Scholars, writers, filmmakers, and activists need to chronicle the stories of these children so that they do not quietly disappear and ultimately take the blame for something that powerful people outside their community did to them without their knowledge, and without any ability on their part to protest and change the situation.