Reversing School to Prison Pathways

USF Professor Brenda Townsend Walker’s research identifies ways to help redirect disenfranchised African American males.

By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (May 10, 2013) – “When teachers are placed in urban classrooms with little understandings of African American males living in poverty, it is almost inevitable that misunderstandings will occur,” says USF College of Education Professor Brenda Townsend Walker.


Such misunderstandings can lead to more than simple philosophical differences. They can develop into culture clashes that end up excluding African American males from school settings first, and ultimately from society.  

The consequences can be disastrous. Compared to all other racial groups and African American girls, African American males experience more grade retention, suspension and special education and alternative school placement. These negative school experiences can culminate in dropping out of school, or worse yet, juvenile detention and adult imprisonment – outcomes that affect African American males disproportionately.   

Townsend Walker conducted a phenomenographic study investigating the experiences of African American adolescent males relative to their school suspensions and juvenile arrests. She wrote about her findings in an article titled “Teacher Education and African American Males: Deconstructing Pathways From the Schoolhouse to the ‘Big House,’” published in “Teacher Education and Special Education (TESE): The Journal of the Teacher Education Division of the Council for Exceptional Children.”  


The article focuses on “the exclusionary school and societal practices that route African American males from schools to juvenile detention and adult prisons.” In it she issues an imperative to teacher and principal educators – the people who hopefully influence K-12 policies and practices – to reverse these pathways.


Townsend Walker interviewed nine teenagers in small focus groups. They had dropped out of school while in middle school and had been arrested at some point in their young lives. Instead of simply reporting on them as research subjects, she gave the young men a chance to express their opinions and feelings about what was going on with them. Once they understood she was not working for the police, they opened up with their perceptions.


“I spoke to them in a local community center in which they were most familiar and comfortable,” she said. “I wanted to understand their thoughts on their school and family experiences. I also let them know that we were looking to find ways to prevent young people from committing crimes and getting into trouble with the law. Equally important, I wanted to hear their recommendations, and they were quite perceptive and insightful.”

Between her research and the interviews, Townsend Walker discerned the importance of examining school outcomes for African American males in aggregate to uncover the disturbing patterns of school and societal exclusion.

Citing the work of Russell J. Skiba, at al., she found, “African American students were twice as likely to be referred at the elementary level and four times as likely in middle school for behavioral infractions that result in teachers making office referrals, for more subjectively defined offenses, such as defiance and disrespect, than their White peers.” And further, “researchers found that even when the behavioral infractions are similar, African American males receive disciplinary measures that are harsher and more exclusionary,” leading to disproportionate placement in alternative schools that are typically housed in segregated schools and often perceived as dumping grounds.

“When African American and White youth commit drug offenses, African Americans are detained seven times more often than their White peers, causing scholars to suggest that drugs are proxies for race, according to Sheldon and Brown,” Townsend-Walker writes.

“Not being promoted to the next grade level, receiving especially harsh discipline and being suspended with higher frequency than others of different backgrounds quite naturally leads to increased behavioral difficulties and lowered self-esteem, which only makes matters worse,” she said.

Among the themes that came up in the teen focus groups were “detachment from parents who were incapable of providing basic needs, intense economic pressures to provide for younger siblings, lack of employment opportunities, negative schooling experiences where they believed that they were disliked and unwanted by some teachers and administrators, and finally that being sent repeatedly to juvenile detention only desensitized them to involvement with the criminal justice system.”

The young men also made it clear that they knew when teachers disapproved of them and when teachers genuinely cared about them, showing them respect and displaying a sense of humor. These relationships directly influenced their actions in school.

Townsend Walker came away from her research with practical recommendations for teacher educators on how to reverse the practice of disproportionate discipline that is driving young African-American males into the criminal justice system in disproportionate numbers. And she made the case for one clear mandate: “Teacher education and school leadership programs must be reinvented so that school personnel understand and are able to address the complex factors that shuttle African American males from schools and into juvenile justice and adult correctional systems.”

The reinvention she has in mind requires more partnerships among educators, families, agencies and community members “so that we can truly meet the needs of all students, and be more inclusive of those who are most marginalized. We have to critique and alter our own practices and take advantage of nontraditional dialogue and professional development opportunities.

“That requires engaging in discussions of the intersections of race, social class and gender – something people are often uncomfortable doing. But educators must self-evaluate to ensure that dialogue leads to action and is not stymied by avoidance or resistance.”


She also found that research bears out two other relatively simple and obvious adjustments.

“Teacher educators need to continue incorporating field experiences with diverse students in communities that are different from their own as part of the training process. And course content must be revisited continually to be more responsive to the learners who are most disenfranchised.

“As African American males experience the most cultural incongruence or dissonance with school culture, they would benefit from more teachers demonstrating ethics of care and respect and teacher who are skilled in culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy,” Townsend Walker asserts. 

She would also like to see changes in approaches to studying African American males.

“One thing that would help teacher educators is to conduct more research that is strength-based rather than deficit-based. And the research should be conducted in their schools and communities,” she said. “Since insider status is critical, researchers may need to enlist community members in study recruitment and conduct. In addition to family and community members, teachers and administrators can reverse pathways from the schoolhouse to the ‘Big House.’ The responsibility begins with us in colleges of education, who are teacher and principal educators.”

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.