A Rose By Any Other Name

Anthony Bouyer, PhD

By Anthony Bouyer, PhD
Guest Column

A name does not reflect the essential qualities of something or someone; the cliché is a direct quotation from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in which Juliet says, “What’s in a name?

I previously wrote an op-ed article on the school-to-prison pipeline outlining how this system has contributed to too many educational and social problems for children of color. The educational system has been the main culprit in funneling children of color through this pipeline. Those who genuinely understand institutional racism know that interconnecting systems play a role in supporting and carrying out racist agendas.

Are myths or facts integral to institutions that cause children to move onto the path of incarceration because of their race? From a humane perspective, we would not think so. However, if history has taught us anything, we should be vigilant about the possibilities.

According to Katie Sanders, Politifact Institute (July 16, 2013), St. Petersburg, Fla. mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford said that among the top issues facing her city is the need for improving graduation rates. Ford offered a disturbing statistic to back up her point.

“We know that our private prison systems are calculating how many new beds (they will need) based on the third grade, number of third graders, and that’s just wrong,”

In this case, Ford mangled an oft-repeated, inaccurate talking point about prisons using third grade reading scores to predict future bed needs. It has been wrongly cited by Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell and opinion columnists for the Post and New York Times and debunked by FactCheck.org and the Washington Post. Ford went one step further by focusing on private prison operators and the number of third graders, not academic performance.

Ford sighted the Nevada Department of Corrections which mentions that children who do not read on grade level are more likely to drop out, use drugs or end up in prison.

So many nonreaders wind up in jail that officials have found they can use the rate of illiteracy to help calculate future prison needs.

Mike Schmoker, an independent education consultant, made a similar claim in a 1999 Education Week article. He stated he could not verify the claim and did not make it any longer. Mike Tikkanen of Invisible Children said: “no state today admits to it, nor have he been able to find those references.”

In making a case for focusing more on education, St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Kathleen Ford said, “We know that our private prison systems are calculating how many new beds (they will need) based on the third grade, number of third graders, and that’s just wrong.”

This conversation took place several years ago, and many politicians denied the assertions. However, fast-forward to today.

Tennessee Judge Donna Scott Davenport is facing criticism after it was found she illegally handed children jail sentences by creating fake laws that don’t exist in Tennessee.

According to WREG and ProPublica, Judge Davenport, a Rutherford County juvenile judge, instituted a policy in 2016 that all children charged with crimes be processed at the local detention center. The approach gained attention when, later that year, 11 Black schoolchildren were detained after witnessing a fight between a five-year-old and a six-year-old.

The children were detained for “criminal responsibility for the conduct of another,” a bogus, made-up law.

Now, state politicians are speaking on the situation, expressing anger at what they see as yet another school-to-prison pipeline affecting Black children and demanding answers.

“There has to be something done to everyone who was involved in this,” Rep. Gloria Johnson (D) told WREG. “It’s my understanding that they created a law that wasn’t even on the books to make that happen.”

Under Davenport’s filter system, police would bring children they arrested straight to jail, where staff decided whether or not to detain them until their detention hearing, which could take days. That means children who did something as minor as skipping school could spend a week in jail.

Davenport’s filter system also allowed the detention center to jail children it considered unruly, defined as “a TRUE threat.” However, there is no definition of what a TRUE threat means.

Given the new revelations regarding Judge Donna Scott Davenport,  perhaps what Kathleen Ford stated several years ago has a ring of the truth?