School to Prison Pipeline Funneling Children Into the System, Research Shows

Research shows that 2/3 of children not reading by 4th grade are headed to welfare, or to prison.

The school to prison pipeline is a national trend that many believe is running through Oklahoma. In this extensive report, Tulsa's Channel 8's Kim Jackson spoke with two Oklahoma inmates who described their experience through the pipeline.

"They just simply come to me and said I don't think school is best for you. I was kind of shocked at that. And I agreed with them and dropped out," said Kenneth Carter, who is an inmate at Jackie Brannon Correctional Center in McAlester.

"I might not even be here if I would have been sent to school and did what I was supposed to do," admitted Alex Barnett, who is serving time for a violent crime.

Carter could barely ready the word "corrections" on his back when he arrived in prison at the age of 38.

"I could read, but I didn't comprehend much on what the reading was about," he said.

Poor reading and school funding are one part of the school to prison pipeline. But zero tolerance and suspensions are others, according to Juvenile Judge Doris Fransein.

"I have foster children that have been suspended from pre-school and kindergarten because of behaviors, mental health behaviors too difficult for people to contain. And so you wonder how does a five-year-old become such a threat you have to suspend them from kindergarten?" Fransein asked.

She says that is how the process starts, with children missing school, troubled families and children placed in her courtroom.

"It's always this 'society says it's someone else's child. It's your problem; you take care of it. We don't want to deal with these behaviors.' It's completely frustrating. I don't know what the answer is," she said. Fransein says the whole system of dealing with troubled students needs improvement.

The juvenile court system sometimes passes students on to the adult correctional system, as in the case of Alex Barnett.

"I grew up poor, so I probably started stealing in the beginning. I remember I started stealing in the beginning. I used to break in houses and steal food," he said.

In third grade his motivation was finding food instead of finding answers to homework. He says poverty left him hungry for food, clothes and attention at school.

"I didn't like it. I felt uncomfortable, so I stopped coming. I started skipping," Barnett said.

He dropped out, had brushes with juvenile court and at 18 he committed the crime that sent him to prison.

"We got drunk and robbed a pizza man in my neighborhood," he said.

Today, Barnett and Carter are part of the prison literacy program.

Barnett, who chose to steal instead of study, is now a tutor.

Carter, who struggled to fit in, picked up where he left off in third grade.

"I have a range of people who come to me from those who cannot read at all to people on a fifth grade level," said Tina Holder, the teacher at Jackie Brannon. She said 10 percent of the prison population is below a 6th grade reading level. Many of their problems started years before in the pipeline in front of a juvenile judge.

"By the time I see them in the delinquency realm, yes, they've disconnected from school. Grades are poor. They have been suspended a number of times for behavioral issues. Their parents have given up.

Judge Fransein says students must have their education at some point.

And many are finding it in prison, where studies show reading will make the difference in their success.

"I know that the more that they learn, the better they are going to do when they get back on the street," said Holder.

Carter will have to fight for sobriety after decades of addiction.

And, after his 12 year sentence, Barnett will re-enter the world with a GED at 28.

One thing they've learned is taking responsibility.