By Austin Landas, Eshita Gupta, Alice Luo, Wei Zhang, and Michael Seong


“Struggling in school and not having the resources to stay on track leads students to go on the wrong path. Students become prone to using drugs…. You get labeled a felon and you have to deal with that for the rest of your life. People [students] find themselves giving up in life,” says Cory Walster. We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Cory and discussing with him how he believes mental health intersects with the school-to-prison pipeline.

At first glance, you wouldn’t know Cory as someone with a past of entanglements with the criminal legal system. He’s a loving dad to two children, a registered tribal member of the Oglala Lakota Nation (though he wants readers to know that he is White passing and has privilege as a result), and a passionate gardener (he proudly showed off his sunflowers that he grows). However, as a formerly incarcerated individual, he brings a unique perspective on the long-term negative effects the school-to-prison pipeline has on youth, particularly BIPOC individuals.

Cory Walster is the community organizer for Civil Survival Project, an organization that helps people who have been directly affected by the criminal justice system to connect, create political participation about the system, and promote the removal of many financial, political, and legal barriers for reentry into society after release from prison. He has also made contributions to other organizations such as the Central Kitsap School District Student Rights and Responsibilities Committee and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).

For Cory, educating schools on the negative long-term mental health effects of the school-to-prison pipeline is deeply personal, as he himself experienced incarceration in four Washington State prisons and went through struggles regarding his daughter’s education.

Upon release from prison, Cory suffered paranoia and anxiety, and having both current and past child support debt grow while he was incarcerated made things even harder. He had a tough time re-entering into society, as many landlords and employers were hesitant to accept him because of his criminal record. All of this made it hard for Cory to make ends meet, which affected his mental health and his ability to parent and provide for his daughter.

Cory’s struggles were also intergenerational. On top of the financial hardships and re-entry into society, he had to continue caring for his daughter, who had undiagnosed mental health issues, which affected how she was treated at school. At times, he had to go to her school and beg for them to not suspend his daughter. Even after his daughter was diagnosed with a mental health condition, nobody in the school system informed him of his daughter’s rights and the options that he had. Because of this, his struggles were much harder than they needed to be.

A 2018 survey from the Washington State Department of Health shows that how educators respond to students’ mental health issues, especially among BIPOC students, can make or break their future. Unfortunately, some of these students don’t have access to proper resources, which can negatively affect their education. Black students with mental health issues are often especially targeted and suspended due to teacher bias and insufficient mental health resources. According to the Civil Rights Office of the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 5% of White students are suspended during school, compared with 16% of Black students. With the lack of proper resources and zero-tolerance policies, these students are prone to being misled or even incarcerated. Currently, it is reported that the highest percentage of prison detentions (61%) are Blacks and Latinos, and students of color seem to be particularly vulnerable to discrimination.

Unfortunately, the lack of mental health support for Black students is especially a reality. According to a research report by the ACT in January 2020, only 48% of Blacks said they could reach out to a teacher for mental health support; that percentage is lowered to 39% when it comes to counselors. In addition, another report by America’s Promise Alliance from June 2020 shows that 31% of Black youth are experiencing poorer emotional and cognitive health. These studies reflect the growing mental health concerns for Black students, as well as the need for proper resources to help them in this area.

However, there is hope for BIPOC students with mental health issues. One morning, Cory read the newspaper and saw a story of another parent’s struggles of her child being pushed out of an education setting. He was moved, and realized that he wasn’t alone in his struggle. He reached out to her, and together, they organized with others who were also affected by school pushout. This group would eventually form the Civil Survival Project, which advocates for those negatively affected by the criminal legal system. One of Civil Survivor Project’s long term goals is addressing systemic problems with discipline processes known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

General Description of the School-to-Prison Pipeline

The School-to-Prison pipeline is the process by which students (disproportionately BIPOC students) are forced to leave school, which can increase the chances of them being incarcerated. Causes can be traced back to discipline policies and practices in the school that links the school with law enforcement agencies. When law enforcement gets involved in disciplinary action for a student, there is a chance that the student could be expelled from the educational environment and enter the juvenile and criminal justice system as a result.

Because there were frequent school shootings all over the United States in the 1990s, American schools adopted a series of practices and policies in order to reduce school violence and misconduct. This included the zero-tolerance policy, increase of school resource officers, and campus police. These policies impose severe penalties on misdemeanors and felonies, such as suspension and expulsion, and excludes students with a criminal record or even disruptive behavior from attending school. This policy does not distinguish between serious and non-serious crimes.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), from 2013 to 2014, 65% of public schools in the United States had at least one incident of violence in their schools, but the number of schools with Black students rose to 82%.

Because the school-to-prison pipeline is based on “disrespectful” and “destructive” behaviors, the idea that these behaviors lead to implicit prejudice plays a role; understanding of disrespectful or destructive behavior depends on the teacher. Black students have always been stereotyped and misunderstood, as the way they socialize may be different from those of other students.

“Teachers may perceive these students as aggressive and easily give up on them,” Cory said. When the teacher abandons the students and evacuates them from the school environment without proper education, it increases the possibility of juvenile delinquency. The zero-tolerance policy imposed strict disciplinary sanctions on students, which caused some students to be excluded from school or even sent to juvenile detention centers. This greatly affects their futures, and they may not have enough resources to get back on track once released.

How the Pipeline Negatively Affects Children Long Term

According to Cory, “zero-tolerance” policies unnecessarily criminalize minor violations of school rules. In most cases, schools should focus on education, probation, and stay for observation within the school system, instead of sending children to the judicial system for trial.

Cory believes that children who are suspended due to academic negligence or violation of discipline often lack supervision and correct guidance and do not have helpful social activities. Suspended students fall behind in their courses, leading to a higher probability of them leaving and dropping out. Overly strict discipline policies will frustrate and isolate students, making them more likely to be influenced by negative influences like gang activity. Cory recalls that as a youth, “as a white passing Native [….] I never felt that I was part of a group. My best friend was the only other Native kid that I knew of in my school. This led to me looking for somewhere [else] to belong.”

Teenagers with an arrest or conviction history (especially BIPOC ones) face considerable obstacles to reintegrating into society. Many employers hesitate to hire someone with a history of arrests or incarceration. Not only do such teenagers face long term barriers to employment opportunities, they also face barriers to mental health services, housing, and even food assistance, as many assistance programs do background checks on applicants. Without access to support services, those with an incarceration history find it much harder to survive outside of the prison system. Furthermore, many previously imprisoned people are not allowed to vote or serve as jury members.

Finally, returning teenagers usually have little or no work experience, low academic qualifications, and insufficient social and family support. All these factors make reintegration into society more challenging, which can have an effect on mental health.

What we can do to Change Public Perception of Formerly Incarcerated People

Cory spoke about how several formerly incarcerated people, including himself, found it very difficult to find opportunities and often went into hiding because they feared how they were perceived by society, and moreover, did not know how to re-enter into society.

Civil Survivor Projects Game Changer groups also aim to help through legislative advocacy and education. Cory elaborated on the workshops, which have given many formerly incarcerated people a voice. These workshops are a tool to help identify those who are struggling with re-entering society and giving them the encouragement and empowerment to have a voice once again. In these workshops, they go over the history of organizing and the power of their collective voices. Next, they discuss the barriers they face, and how this affects themselves, their family, and children. Moreover, during the workshop, elected officials and state legislators visit them, giving authentic feedback on how they can tell their stories more effectively. This is the first time for many of the people who attend these workshops to get their voices heard by someone in a state of power.

What Our Communities Can Do

Many in our communities are unaware of some of the brutalities that incarcerated people have to go through. Cory mentions some key points that he believes needs to be put into action to fix school-to-prison pipeline issues and moreover, allow the re-entry of formerly incarcerated people.

First of all, Cory says that police patrolling in schools should not be allowed. This is put to act as a disciplinary system in schools, where their goal is to monitor and make students behave. Instead of this system, the money should go to mental health services, such as hiring certified counselors and psychologists in schools to support those students who struggle with mental illnesses.

Second, we need to stop suspending students for minor behavior issues that do not warrant a suspension.

Lastly, Cory believes that school systems need to be equitable for all children. Schools need to participate in every student’s journey, making sure no student is left out, and gets the resources they need. There needs to be regulations and laws made that allow access to resources and opportunities to all kids, despite their circumstances. A voice for these subjects of matter is very important, and that is where the public comes in: to take a stand for these people and spread the word until there is a significant change made.

Cory and his colleagues at Civil Survivor Project have made some headway in achieving these reentry goals over the past year. In February 2021, the Washington Supreme Court ruled in State v. Blake that strict liability drug possession convictions are unconstitutional. Tarra Simmons, Civil Survivor Project’s Executive Director, recently announced that Civil Survivor Project is launching a class action lawsuit for restitution of legal financial obligations related to these unconstitutional convictions. Simmons, who is also a Washington State Representative for the 23rd District, also announced that she is introducing a bill that will restore voting rights to individuals who have felonies on their records. “This will help people to feel and be part of the community as they reenter,” Cory says.

There are many steps you can take to get involved and add a voice of representation for incarcerated BIPOC young people and mental health awareness. Here are some things you can do to help:

  • Donate:
  • Spread the word.
    • Join a game changer group in your community. Encourage others to join.
  • Create a supportive community to encourage incarcerated people to re-enter society
  • Create awareness of the lack of access to living-wage jobs for incarcerated people

Extra resources:

Cory Walster Bio

Civil Survival Project team members

Formerly incarcerated advocates change their ‘label,’ get involved in Olympia and beyond

About us and acknowledgment

About the authors: Austin Landas, Alice Luo, Vivian Zhang, Eshita Gupta, and Michael Seong are UW Bothell Business students in Professor Laura Umetsu’s business ethics and writing class. They wrote this blog as a class project to spread awareness of how the school-to-prison pipeline affects mental health. The authors would like to thank Cory Walster for taking time out of his day for the interview discussed in this post.

Posted on March 31, 2021