PENROSE – Shonta Smith eats, sleeps, breathes and lives education.
As an educator for almost 30 years, she’s seen students from elementary through the collegiate level. And she has seen far too many children in the St. Louis area slip through the cracks, going from school to the prison system. Through awareness and activism, she’s determined to change that.
Smith held a symposium Saturday morning at the St. Louis Public Library’s Julia Davis branch at 4415 Natural Bridge Avenue, to discuss how to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline that’s rampant not just in St. Louis but throughout Missouri. Attendees packed the library.
Smith clarified right away that her symposium wouldn’t be comfortable.
“People get so uncomfortable discussing racism,” she said. “And why should you be comfortable? It’s racism.”
Smith explained that in Missouri, black children were consistently failed by schools and ushered into the justice system.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, data gathered from the 2015-2016 Missouri school year showed that black students were five
times more likely than their white peers to receive an out-of-school suspension.
During that idle time, children look for things to do, which can lead to trouble.
Smith said that in a country founded on truth, justice and equality, “Why is it not happening for everyone in the U.S.?”
She said this idea was flawed and simply did not exist. The answers to many of today’s issues in the legislature and the justice system date back to the creation of the U.S. Constitution, she said. Smith encouraged attendees to take a look at the preamble to the Constitution and study its language.
“Who was it really written for?” she questioned the crowd. Making the connection with the 13th Amendment, Smith emphasized that slavery affected everyone today.
“We haven’t been emancipated,” she said. “There’s a form of slavery called the criminal justice system. Some people call it the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Attendees were vocal with their opinions on solutions to the school-to-prison issue. Facilitators from area schools, community programs, churches and the department of corrections helped discuss these ideas as attendees divided themselves into groups to brainstorm solutions.
“We need to understand trauma going on at home,” one attendee shouted.
“Kids need to be invested in,” another added.
Smith agreed that children needed to be invested in, but she brought up the issues the public school system in St. Louis has faced for generations. The inequities among schools in the metro area contribute to the gap black students face in the city’s public schools versus their white peers in school districts with higher state funding and opportunities.
“If you don’t have the will to engage in practices that are beneficial to the populations that you serve, then you’re a part of the problem, and not the solution,” Smith said.
Yolanda Campbell, an education specialist, was passionate about the mission to save children from the criminal justice system. Campbell works with Unleashing Potential, a local organization that aims to close the opportunity gap by providing educational programs for children.
“Everything is global,” she said. “But we’ve got to put the boots on the ground where we lay our heads and do the work.”
Campbell went on to explain that blame cannot always be placed on parents.
Smith’s own Model of Educational Excellence stresses this point. Smith said the home, school, community and church must “engage in best practices to meet the needs of the student.” The goal of this model is to prepare and help students to succeed, “using their gifts and talents to live a life of purpose and substance.”
Smith wanted attendees to leave the symposium having a better understanding of how the school-to-prison pipeline is a recurring system, but she doesn’t want people to stop there.
“Incarceration impacts the family, not just the person in there,” she said. “We all have to do the work.”