March 2021

Reprinted with permission from the Hamline University. The original article was published Oct. 7, 2020.

Letitia Basford and Joe Lewis
Letitia Basford and Joe Lewis

Racial justice starts in the elementary school classroom.

Years ago, Hamline associate professor Letitia Basford heard this firsthand from a graduate student in one of her education classes. The student, Bridget Borer ‘18, had seen the worst of classroom racial injustices: Borer’s two biracial sons had been labeled as troublemakers early in their school years, and a pattern of over-discipline, suspensions, and expulsion kickstarted a domino effect that eventually led both sons to incarceration as adults.

This pattern, referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline, especially impacts Black, indigenous, and children of color.

Basford and her colleague, associate professor Joe Lewis, asked Borer and her sons if they would share their family’s story to educate teachers about the destructive school practices that lead to the school-to-prison pipeline. Several publications and many years of presentations later, they have shared the family’s story and seen the transformation that has come from educating others about the pipeline.

The research

Basford and Lewis’s latest research focuses on ways that schools can prevent the school-to-prison pipeline.

“Large public schools often fail to meet the needs of many students, especially when combined with zero-tolerance policies and other rigid disciplinary practices,” said Basford. “When students are expelled and pushed out of the classroom for prolonged periods due to suspensions or other disciplinary measures, they miss vital classroom time, fall far behind, and are more likely to drop out.”

Their most recent research shows that when schools offer youth a family-like atmosphere, innovative programming, holistic services, and flexible planning, they will prevent or reverse the pipeline.

“We’ve literally heard students say, ‘This school saved my life,’ in reference to a charter school that is focused on youth who have experienced the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Basford.

The research also flows into Basford and Lewis’s classrooms at Hamline. It’s a topic that excites students as it sparks awareness about the structural and classroom-level inequities of school systems. It also arms future teachers with the tools to combat the pipeline.

Research into action

Some of those future teachers have already turned this research into action. For Lindsey Bernardy ‘22, education and digital media arts co-major, it was an opportunity to combine her disciplines.

Bernardy took what she’d learned in Basford’s diversity in education course and incorporated it into a podcast episode. With help from Josh Gumiela, digital media arts department chair, Bernardy translated what she’d learned into a 16-minute audio production explaining the school-to-prison pipeline.

“I’d love to teach digital media arts in the classroom, so it was interesting to see how they could work together in my learning,” said Bernardy.

Hometown solidarity

Christina Talberg ‘22 took what she learned from that same class back to her hometown near Alexandria, Minnesota. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the civil unrest that followed, Talberg noticed a lack of action in her predominantly white hometown. Inspired by the class, Talberg took to the streets with her own protest in solidarity with her town’s Black residents.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to have this tragic thing happen, and we’re all just pretending like everything is fine,” said Talberg, an elementary education and communication co-major.

Talberg has now organized something of a movement in her town, with herself and others protesting and publishing letters to the editor in the newspaper, explaining the roots of systemic racism and how it impacts Black lives today. There’s been backlash in the form of opposing letters to the editor, but Talberg has also witnessed a swell of support from the town.

“I’m trying to use what I’ve learned from class about using my white privilege to speak about these things,” said Talberg. “I don’t know how many opinions I’ve honestly changed, but our main goal was to show that there are people that care.”

The work continues

Both undergraduates acknowledge that their own K-12 schools failed to educate them on racial justice issues, and they plan to incorporate tools from Basford’s class into their future careers, teaching or otherwise. They recognize that openly discussing racial justice in their future classrooms and advocating for marginalized students can transform school environments.

“It’s never too late to learn about racial issues and change your perspective on it, but we really need to work harder on teaching kids about it way earlier,” said Talberg.

Racial justice has garnered extra attention in the news lately, but at Hamline, it’s not a new topic. Faculty like Basford and Lewis have long sought to bring these topics into their classrooms so that their students can, in turn, be prepared to address them in their own classrooms. Learning about the school-to-prison pipeline is eye-opening for Hamline students, but that just means there’s still work to be done.

“The current events absolutely draw widespread attention and widespread urgency, but that urgency for me has been there for a long time,” said Basford.

By Anne Kopas