By Landon Van Soest, Filmmaker, “For Ahkeem”
and Sara Baker, Legislative and Policy Director, ACLU of Missouri

It’s easy to hear phrases like “school-to-prison pipeline” or “ratios of disparity” and dismiss them as think tank jargon.

But these aren’t abstract concepts—for many Americans they are real life.

Beginning as early as preschool, students of color are punished more harshly and more frequently than their white peers.  This has an immediate effect on their learning, confidence, performance, and self-worth.

This kind of harsh discipline can have a lasting impact for years to come.

Just ask Daje Shelton.

In the recent film “For Ahkeem,” we meet Daje just as she is expelled from her public high school in North St. Louis.  Daje isn’t an actress and “For Ahkeem” is not a work of fiction. Through Daje’s story, the movie illustrates the a range of issues our youth are living every day.

Black girls in particular are treated like adults far too early in their lives, according to a study by the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law. Viewed as more self-sufficient and “worldly” than their peers, Black girls are forced to grow up fast and aren’t nurtured in ways that are crucial for early childhood development.

For Daje, a fight at school was cause for her to be expelled and made to appear in front of a judge. Daje avoids juvenile detention thanks to a sympathetic judge and is given a chance to fight for her future in an alternative school.

Throughout the film, we see firsthand the systematic racism that has created the economically impoverished and segregated neighborhood she lives in. We also see the criminal justice policies that have set up many Black youth like Daje to fail.

Racial disparities in school discipline pervade nearly every punishment category in Missouri – and have for years. Black students are five times more likely to be suspended than White students. (The national rate of 3.8.)

Daje’s uphill battle is one faced by thousands in Missouri. Many have even more challenges, fewer options, fewer opportunities and fewer rewards. Too many end up in the criminal justice system after they’ve seen door after door close in front of them. And it starts as early as preschool.

In Missouri, Black preschoolers are suspended more than four times as often as their White classmates. Our schools force Black children as young as three-years-old out of the classroom, with multiple suspensions, more frequently than 44 other states.

The deck is stacked against these children from their earliest experiences with education.

School is just the beginning of a track that funnels Black youth into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

The disproportional treatment in schools increases the likelihood for students of color to engage with law enforcement at an earlier age, often within an educational setting itself. These factors tip the scales toward young people of color finding themselves on the wrong side of the law as they grow up, where they continue to face disproportionate sentencing.

While watching “For Ahkeem,” the audience sees Missouri’s school-to-prison pipeline for themselves.

That’s why the filmmakers of “For Ahkeem” and ACLU of Missouri are partnering up to use this real-life narrative to drive policy change.

Across Missouri school districts and communities, screenings of “For Ahkeem” will be paired with policy discussions to educate people about this pervasive problem in Missouri and help them make policy changes.

ACLU of Missouri’s statewide report, “From School to Prison: Missouri’s Pipeline of Injustice,” highlights the many disturbing trends on discipline in Missouri schools. “For Ahkeem” puts a face to these statistics.

All children have the constitutional right to an equal education. Missouri’s failure to provide equal opportunity to students of color hurts our children and communities.

“For Ahkeem” is a specific story of one teenage girl, but her story is similar to millions of young people across the nation caught in systems that unknowingly – and unjustly – send them into the school-to-prison pipeline.

It isn’t an abstraction or jargon. This is real life.

Missouri owes our children better. We can be better. The work to end the pipeline begins now.