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Hopkins in Baltimore Series

Panelists Discuss Challenge of Baltimore’s
School-to-Prison Pipeline

Creating a climate of empathy in our schools, homes and police departments requires “a different kind of national moral imagination,” said actress, playwright and activist Anna Deavere Smith at Johns Hopkins on Dec. 7. Smith moderated a panel discussion on ending “The School-to-Prison Pipeline” in Baltimore.

A diverse group of educators, community members and Hopkins faculty, students and staff attended the event, held in Sommer Hall at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Panelists included Robert Balfanz, Johns Hopkins professor and co-director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools; Katrina Foster, principal of Elmer A. Henderson: A Johns Hopkins Partnership School; Lt. Col. Melvin Russell, division commander of the Community Collaboration Division of the Baltimore City Police, and Margaret Williams, executive director of Maryland Family Network.

Early and overzealous punishment of black children, incarceration of young black men as part of the failed “war on drugs” and a legacy of enforced poverty in many neighborhoods have contributed to the problem, panelists said. Research shows that children who are suspended or expelled from school are far more likely to either drop out of school or end up in the juvenile justice system. Data also indicates that black and Latino students are suspended and expelled at much higher rates than white students.

And the problem starts early: There are more children under age 4 kicked out of childcare in Maryland than teenagers 14 to 18 years old expelled from our schools, said Margaret Williams, executive director of the Maryland Family Network. She said very young children come to school with problems that teachers often are not prepared to handle.

“When children bring their stress and trauma to school where well-meaning adults don’t know how to meet that challenge, there’s a problem. Then we blame teachers, which is wrong,” Williams said. She said Baltimore has many outstanding educators who are not equipped for what they face in the classroom. 

Foster said it is important to address teacher’s own stress and experiences with trauma, before schools can hope to address trauma in students. She also said it is important to examine the messages schools communicate to teachers.

For example, she said, teachers are trained to evaluate success by test scores, but that often leads to an unhealthy competition. “Henderson-Hopkins is trying to encourage collaboration rather than competition.” That approach has helped create an environment in which children are eager to come to school ghf–Henderson-Hopkins has 97 percent attendance rate.

Several of the panelists talked about the importance of addressing trauma experienced by both teachers and police officers as a first step in creating change.

“We ask people who are wounded to take care of people who are wounded,” Russell said. That includes police officers, he added. “I look at police officers as wounded people.”  Russell plans to take all 70 of his officers on a self-care retreat next year to begin to address their trauma.

He pointed to his division’s chaplaincy program as one approach toward helping police officers learn to serve communities better. Chaplains ride along with officers during their shifts, subtly—and not so subtly—altering the climate in the patrol car. “There’s a real difference between occupying a community and serving a community,” Russell said. “It’s really difficult to stay nasty if you’re riding around in a confessional box.”

Although panelists said it is important to create a climate of empathy, listening and respect in our schools, they also emphasized the need for resources—resources for our poorest families, schools and communities.

“Nobody climbs Mt. Everest alone, yet we ask our teachers and students in the schools with the highest needs to struggle alone,” Balfanz said, saying that the school-to-prison pipeline was really a “poverty-to-prison pipeline.” The key, he added, is to build a “school-to-wealth pipeline.”

“We put our highest needs students in schools with a level of challenge that no school is prepared to meet. If you talk to kids about what they want, they want teachers who are tough but caring. You have to strike that balance,” he said. The trick, he added, was creating that kind of balance with every teacher in every classroom. “Consistency in the classroom is the key.” And consistency takes training, which takes resources.

When Smith suggested that Baltimore faces a “womb-to-prison pipeline,” panelists agreed that the problem, while entrenched, was not without solutions.

Williams said that the most effective model for empowering families is Head Start, which was established in 1965 as a comprehensive early child development program. Head Start requires that more than half of their decision-making slots to be filled with parents.

And Russell said his dream is to create “Officer Friendly” programs in all Baltimore City schools, so that police and children could learn from one another.

Looking around the room, Foster said she wished she could have everyone at the event as mentors for children in her school, adding, “The resilience of our students and our communities have taught me that change is possible.”

Do you want to help end the school-to-prison pipeline? Contact one of the panelists for volunteer opportunities:

Robert Balfanz -

Katrina Foster -

Lt. Col. Melvin Russell -

Margaret Williams -

The event was the first in the Hopkins in Baltimore series, a program created to stimulate conversations on each Johns Hopkins campus about ways the university and the community can work together to effect change. Learn more about the series.

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