Kevin: According to the American Civil Liberties Union, school disciplinary policies often disproportionately affect Black students. Black students are suspended or expelled at three times the rate of white students and are three times more likely to enter the juvenile justice system. How can we hold students accountable for their actions and still provide support in the ways that they need? What are some successful prevention approaches for keeping students out of the criminal justice system, and how can we holistically reintegrate students who are currently in the juvenile justice system? This is What I Want to Know. And today I'm joined by Tony Lowden to find out.
Kevin: Tony Lowden is a vice president at ViaPath Technologies, an organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of incarceration. Lowden has more than 20 years of experience on the local, state and national levels, assisting criminal justice-involved individuals with opportunities for successful outcomes. In 2020, Lowden was appointed by the White House to be the executive director of the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry. He is also the pastor for former President and First Lady Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. Today he is here to talk to us about the school-to-prison pipeline and what schools can do to keep students out of the criminal justice system. Tony, welcome to the show.
Tony: Well, it's good being here, Kevin. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.
Kevin: So, I've been a long admirer of your work, and we're going to talk about the whole school-to-prison pipeline, incarceration, reentry. This has become your career, part of your career, but also I would be remiss if I didn't at least remind our listeners and viewers that you were one heck of an athlete, a great baseball player. Talk about that career, and then what led you to this community-minded work that you're engaged in now?
Tony: Well, Kevin, just like a lot of kids growing up in the inner cities, sometimes sports is the way to avoid gangs and drugs. And I played just about every sport I could play to try to get out of North Philadelphia, and I was blessed to be able to be good at chasing that baseball down in the outfield and playing third base. And so, I love the sport. I still love it to this day. It allowed me to be able to leave North Philadelphia and go out to the West Coast and get a good education at USC, and it's been a blessing to be a part of something I think that shaped me. But more importantly, it made me competitive in everything I do. And so, from prison reform, reentry, helping kids, education, charter schools — I'm competitive with that and always trying to win to make sure I change people’s lives.
Kevin: Now, let me ask you this. You played with the L.A. Dodgers, you had this career in baseball where you were one of the best in the world because, if you make it to that level, you're one of the best in the world. So many athletes really are in the moment to the point where they don't think about post-athletic career. Did you always know you wanted to go back and be involved in community engagement?
Tony: I've always had this sense because I've always asked myself why. Why are things the way that they are? And when I no longer could chase the ball down when I hurt my knee, it forced me into what I studied in school. And so, studying government and economics allowed me to go back and try to be a servant leader to go back and see the things that upset me mentally and physically, the conditions of communities and children across the nation. It forced me to be able to go back and work in that space, working for Willie Brown at the time in California, and then leaving that position after six years and going to run the Republican Caucus after that. It gave me the view of both sides and how we can change communities. And I've been bit by that bug ever since. I want to be able to leave a legacy of serving so that my daughter can have a legacy of serving as well.
Kevin: And I do want to talk about your path to the ministry. How did that take place?
Tony: Well, Kevin, I've always been this kid who loved God in ways that I knew it was nobody but God that got me out of the inner cities. And so, I tell everyone that I grew up in this here, what the young people call the trap house. And OGs, like you and I, we call it the speakeasy or the bootleg house. But I grew up in that house, and as a lot of children are today, was the slave of that house. It was my job to come home from school or practice to clean up that house, to clean up the vomit, clean up the ashtrays and needles in some cases, even clean up my own mom's vomit because she ran the trap house.
And sometimes when I was late coming home from school, my mom in that dysfunctionality would beat me with a braided extension cord, not because I was a bad kid, but all because I was late to doing my job. But I had an aunt that said, "If you come to church, I'll bake you a banana pudding." And every Sunday I went to church chasing that banana pudding, chasing to be able to sit there in the living room and watch sports, watch the Phillies, or watch the Eagles or watch the 76ers playing. And every Sunday that I went to church, it pulled me in farther and farther with a relationship with Christ. And that has been the major foundation of my life that’s given me this space to want to serve.
Kevin: So in part, that work led you to the criminal justice system and some of the challenges we see in the incarceration of our youth. And there are some real disparities. If you are a young man of color, particularly African American, but any young man of color and you come from a low income, socioeconomic working class environment, then you have a significant chance of being swept up in the system. And in fact, this whole school-to-prison pipeline, this is why you and I, we've talked a lot about the need to have education in place in a really meaningful way in these communities. Because if you don't, then that alternative often is incarceration. So, talk to me about the beginnings of that pipeline and what you have seen which helped lead you to this work.
Tony: Well, in my neighborhood where I grew up in North Philadelphia, the majority of the men and women in my family and especially those that I grew up with at my age were justice-involved, and ended up in and out of prisons. Same thing happened to my uncles and my cousins and everybody. And I was determined to break that cycle. But when I look back at the system as a whole, and I traveled across the country — it's in every community, especially in our metropolitan cities. And now we're starting to see a great increase in rural communities where the rural communities are starting to look like the inner city communities.
We're also starting to see that some of the same failing pipelines to prisons have been failing our children for 10, 15, 20 years in a row. And so, when you see the elementary school failing and when that kid moves to the middle school, that school is failing. Nine times out of 10, they're not going to make it through the high school without being justice-involved as well. And so, we are seeing these numbers, this tidal wave of kids that are now entering our systems across the country.
Kevin: So Tony, talk a little bit about the in-school suspension phenomenon and how this impacts the incarceration rate.
Tony: Well, Kevin, that is a huge question, and I think a lot of people don't really address that issue enough. So when a kid ends up with in-school suspension or ends up in alternative school, most of the time those in-school suspension units or halls or classrooms that they're in or alternative schools, it almost looks like the prisons for DJJ, Department of Juvenile Justice. And so, even when a kid goes to Department of Juvenile Justice, he may be there for six months, he ends up coming right back to in-school suspension or alternative schools before he's introduced back into the general population. And so, what we have here is we have a growing influx of kids. So when you and I were growing up in school, if we pushed each other or something like that, we probably would get a paddle during that time, but we wouldn't catch a case.
Now our children, our youth, are actually catching cases where they end up with the DA ,and they end up going to Department of Juvenile Justice for a while or they become justice-involved and then the pipeline starts spiraling out of it. We don't have mentors in our schools. Male role models are not in our schools. Sometimes the platforms that we're using to teach those kids are not even a good platform for those kids to learn on. Some cases, our kids are still learning off of chalkboards when they should be on some type of digital platform or smart board or something. We have to look at ways of overhauling our educational system, but be intentional with those kids that we've been losing in the gaps across our nation.
Kevin: And also this criminality that exists in the mindset of some teachers: Some teachers who are young; they may be young white women who aren't used to dealing with young boys who come from certain backgrounds, boys of color. And I think that schools need to do a better job of training and preparing those teachers. But we've seen just the criminal aspect of how we discipline these young boys. We've all seen the visuals of a five-year-old boy being led away in handcuffs in a police car. And I'm struck by the fact that Atlanta Public Schools Chief Applin talked about this idea of policing in schools. They need to be able to almost go through an additional training to leave that warrior mindset, that SWAT team mindset. And interestingly, he led a SWAT team unit to a guardian mindset.
Tony: Absolutely Kevin. Let's look at my case for example. I grew up in a single parent home. I never knew my father. My mother was very dysfunctional and dysfunctional to me and beat me with a braided extension cord, where I grew up in filth with a very dysfunctional home. I grew up resenting that. When I went to school, the people that educated me were women. And sometimes we see these young African American boys or young boys of color — they grew up in a household where they don't have a father, they don't have a mentor. No one's giving them a rite of passage into manhood. They go to school, and then there's oftentimes a white woman trying to raise them, teach them, discipline them, and they end up acting out. They don't know what it's like to be a man. And so, there's no sense of belonging in these schools, and there's a big culture gap.
And so, when you get me involved with the police, I'm acting out as well because I don't know him. And nine times out of 10, the policeman that is watching over me in school, nine times out of 10 he's white. And so, when we look at this, it's a void, if you will. We’ve got to look at ways of being able to put people in these classrooms and these schools and leadership that look like the kids and understand the community that these kids are coming from because these kids are coming from broken homes. Majority of their parents are in and out of prisons. My wife and I: We opened up a nonprofit. We've been running it for 25 years for kids whose parents are incarcerated. Here in the Macon-Bibb County area, majority of these kids that we had, we see most of them have come from single parent homes, where the fathers or the mothers are not there, or they've been raised by nana or grandma or pop pop.
We’ve got to look at ways of doing things differently. The police that are in our schools, and we know that in some cases we have schools where you have to have police there because of people bringing in guns into the schools, but they have to go through a whole different training where there has to be a mentor and getting to know those kids, getting to know the community. It’s almost that we have to have community policing inside the school so that these officers know what it takes, where these kids are coming from for the communities. And then the kids will get to know them, and you'll be surprised at this, what I call cross pollination that will bring that community and that school together that'll make this place a better place for learning. I also think that we’ve got to look at ways of getting our historical Black colleges involved, a place where they're growing teachers.
We’ve got to look at ways of bringing them into our schools. I don't think we have to wait till they graduate from the school. There needs to be what I call a pipeline when they get on a job training where they're going to get their degree, but they're also working in the schools at the same time; we can do that. We've done it with our military. We should be able to do that with our teachers as well. And we’ve got to look at ways of bringing what I call non-certified teachers into the classroom to help. That's why I love charter schools. I think you can look at ways of bringing in people with professional skills, engineers, people who have worked in fields in the military, people that have retired that come in and help these kids. There's a void, there's a teacher void, there's a teacher shortage, there's a community shortage, and when you have all those things, you have a dysfunctional community.
Kevin: And one of the things that compounds this is, and maybe one thing if we were talking about one generation, but then there are multiple generations: parents, grandparents, great-grandparents who went through some of the same challenges. And you've talked about breaking the generational curse. What do you mean by that?
Tony: What I mean by that, Kevin, is that we've seen decades and decades of failure in our systems. There's a direct correlation from failing schools to our prison pipelines. We have to find ways of changing that trajectory of our children. We can't keep up with the numbers. Every state across the nation is looking for answers and usually those answers are how do we fix our failing schools and how do we stop men and women from going in and out of our prisons. But we’ve got to raise our expectations of what we get out of our educational system. We’ve got to demand a spirit of excellence in every way, and it's not a knock on public schools or charter schools or private schools.
It's just saying that our future has to be that we look for excellence so that men and women don't end up in our prison. Seventy-six percent of the men and women that are in our prisons don't have a high school diploma, so now we have to pay over again once they get in and find ways to get them their education so they can come back out to be a successful citizen. We should do that on the front end, not the back end.
Kevin: One big part of the solution has to be the counseling and mental health services in a stepped up way in our schools.
Tony: We've been medicating our children like crazy in our communities, and we have not done a good job to come up with interventions before that or dealing with the trauma that these kids are going through in those communities. We have not put enough resources with counselors inside our communities and our schools as well. We have to deal with the trauma and the mental health. We’ve got to look at ways of being honest with ourselves and say we have to step in and do everything we can on a holistic approach when it comes to having a place called our educational systems, where counselors have to be there, mentors have to be there, professional teachers as well as nonprofessional teachers to help make the whole system work together. We just don't put gasoline in a car and think that that car is going to make it every day. Somebody has to change oil every now and then. Someone's going to have to change a filter every now and then.
Kevin: Now, Tony, talk about those adults who are in the system and the work that you've been doing, especially as you integrate additional education — because many of these young men who are in prison are high school dropouts — and also the career readiness programs so that they develop the skills to get out and be productive members of society.
Tony: Kevin, it's the most important work that we can do right now. We have over two million people in our prisons across the nation. Seventy-eight million people in our nation have felonies, have either been in and out of prisons or either on probation, some kind of way. Career readiness. We have a nation right now where people are just not working like they used to. Employers are having a hard time finding people to work. We’ve got to look at ways of saying: How do we educate them? My new career with ViaPath — it gives me an opportunity to build a website where there's no interruption to services, so what a person's learning behind the walls of a prison, they can continue that once they get out. We should not just give up on men and women in our prisons. If we're going to call ourselves the Department of Corrections, then we need to find ways of correcting an individual's behavior so that we send them back to their children better than they came in, so that we send them back to our communities to be productive members in our society.
We can do that if we're intentional: intentional with the education platforms, intentional with organizing everyone. I want to say that probably the most important piece of this whole reintegration has to start the moment that a youth is justice-involved, and it starts by the judges and the probation folks working hand in hand and making sure that there are no interruptions or services for that child's education, because the moment they get behind bars, it takes on a whole different culture. We’ve got to look at ways of saying of this child: whatever work he was doing prior to him coming into the prison, it continues when he goes to the prison. But more importantly, there should be a smooth transition for them coming back in and then we surround them with the other, what I call ancillary services, a mentor, counseling, a person who's going to help them reintegrate back into the school.
I think we need to do away with alternative education because if you take a child, you have him justice-involved, and then you bring him back to what they call alternative education — that looks just like the prison. Only thing, there's no bars and there's no barbed wire. Look at ways of being able to reintegrate that child truly back in society, but more importantly, keep the guardrails up so that he doesn't fall out of the bed anymore. Keep those guardrails up so that he can actually have a mentor who can keep guiding him through the process before he's released back into the community. Keep those counselors side by side with him so that his case plan — we give adults case plans; a juvenile should have a case plan as well. When to report, when I go to my mentor, when things are due — teaching them that discipline to enter back into society.
We need that more than we've ever needed before. If not, those children are released back into our communities. They're released back into the streets. They have no incentive, no motivation to continue, and then we end up seeing them in our adult situation. We see it over and over and over with these children who are justice-involved. We're just waiting for them to go to adult prisons, and we need to change that.
Kevin: Yeah, love that and well said. Tony Lowden, thank you so much for joining us on What I Want to Know.
Tony: Well, thank you, Kevin. Thank you for all that you're doing. It was a pleasure being here.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app so you can explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education and write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com.
I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
Tony Lowden is the Vice President of Reintegration and Community Engagement at ViaPath Technologies, an organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of incarceration.
Lowden has more than 20 years of experience on the local, state, and national levels, assisting criminal justice-involved individuals with opportunities for successful outcomes.
In 2020, Lowden was appointed by the White House to be the executive director of the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Improving Reentry. He is also the pastor for former President and First Lady Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.
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What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.