Skip to main content

December 2016 Think Tank: Dr. Crystal Laura

Dr. Crystal Laura will be on campus Dec. 1 and 2 as part of the College of Education and Human Services’ December 2016 Think Tank to discuss her book, Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School-to-Prison Pipeline, and the link between race, education, and incarceration. 

“The school-to-prison pipeline is this really complicated idea that certain populations of young people are vulnerable to being nudged along a trajectory that doesn’t lead them toward college or employment, but instead the streets, jail, and prison…”

By Jayna Morris
NKU Marketing + Communications

Dr. Crystal Laura knows her younger brother, Chris, was meant for bigger things than five felony charges and a lifelong relationship with a jail cell. She also believes that he was pushed out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system.

Laura watched him attend four different schools during a course of three years. She listened to her mother explain that Chris was expelled because his teachers were “unable to teach him.” She didn’t understand why he was labeled as a troublemaker when he couldn’t control his struggle with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). When Chris dropped out of high school, Laura wondered why no one stopped him or asked to help him. She continued to watch her creative, artistic brother head down a destructive path with a label on his back that he couldn’t seem to shake.  

Laura, an associate professor of educational leadership at Chicago State University and co-director of its Center of Urban Research and Education, will be on campus Dec. 1 and 2 as a keynote speaker for the College of Education and Human Services’ 2016 December Think Tank event. She plans to discuss her book, Being Bad: My Baby Brother and the School-to-Prison Pipeline, which focuses on Chris and his journey of being punished in school, pushed out, and then incarcerated.

“The school-to-prison pipeline is this really complicated idea that certain populations of young people are vulnerable to being nudged along a trajectory that doesn’t lead them toward college or employment, but instead the streets, jail, and prison,” Laura says.

Black students are among the most vulnerable population, Laura says. They are three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white classmates, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Laura’s brother’s story is just one piece of a larger nationwide problem. Why does this continue to happen to minority students, and what can be done to fix it?

Many people place blame on zero-tolerance policies and teachers who are quick to discipline rather than get to the root of a child’s behavior.

But a lack of diversity among educators is also a common concern. Racial or ethnic minorities make up 18 percent of teachers, according to the U.S. Department of Education.  

“Educators of color are not properly represented in the field,” Laura says. “Certainly, there is a real issue when young people don’t see representation of themselves in the classroom.”

This rings true for educators like Alvin Garrison.

When Garrison was hired as superintendent of Covington Independent Public Schools in July 2013, he was the only African American superintendent in the state of Kentucky. Of the 173 school districts in Kentucky, he became only the fourth black superintendent in the history of the Commonwealth.

When Garrison finishes his term on June 30 of next year, he will be the second black superintendent to complete a 4-year term. And if he lands another contract, he will be the first African American superintendent in Kentucky to receive a second contract within the same district.

Garrison, who will also be a speaker at the Think Tank event, would like to see more educators of color. 


Dr. Crystal Laura

December 2016 Think Tank

Keynote Address
Thursday, December 1
6:30 p.m.

Think Tank Session
Friday, December 2
9:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m.
You're welcome to join for any part of the day. Lunch provided to those who register by 11/28.

James C. and Rachel M. Votruba
Student Union Ballroom

No Cost to Attend

This event is open to the NKU and Greater Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati community and there is no charge to participate, but registration is required.

Donations will be gratefully accepted.


Parking will be available in the Kenton Garage, near Griffin Hall and the Student Union. See our campus map/directions.

“All kids need to see diversity among their teachers. It helps them to see professionals that look like them,” Garrison says. “It breaks down barriers and helps them realize we are a diverse country and that this is a global society.”

One NKU student, Brandi Mulligan, is doing her best to make sure that there are more students of color going into the education field.

When Mulligan, now a 21-year-old early childhood education senior, started her freshman year at NKU, she felt a little out of place.

“Coming [to NKU] from Louisville was a total culture shock for me because I came from a high school in a city that is very diverse,” Mulligan says. “There were many different races and ethnicities. It was like a melting pot.”

Sitting in a classroom with mostly white females, Mulligan felt like she couldn’t be herself—that if she let her guard down, no one would take her seriously. She knew she wanted to become an educator, but she didn’t know if she wanted to stay at NKU.

She says she was one of three minority students in the early childhood program, and she felt alone.

Instead of transferring to another school, Mulligan decided to do something about it. With the help of her friends and mentors, Mulligan founded Black & Brown Educators of Excellence—a student organization created to empower minority students on campus.

“We are here to help others and inform others and to be a listening ear. A lot of the time, our concerns and issues don’t get heard,” Mulligan says. “But Black & Brown Educators of Excellence is not an organization to try to offend anyone or to make people feel excluded. This is a very open program. I don’t care if you’re black, brown, Latino, white, yellow, green, or blue. I want you to be involved. I feel like you need everyone to make something strive.”

Roland Sintos Coloma, department chair of teacher education in the College of Education and Human Services, is working with faculty, school partners, and students like Mulligan to help solve the disparity.

“We want to make sure we build systems and have structures in place so we can best serve our students,” Coloma says. “We’re really trying to make sure we can create a space for them where they have a sense of belonging and also connect them with alumni so they start thinking about that next step.”

The truth is, culture matters. Students favor minority teachers over white teachers because they serve as role models and are more sensitive to their cultural needs, according to a study by New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

“If you don’t have educators who look like you or material you aren’t engaged in, you will disengage and explore other possibilities,” Laura says.

So, what can be done to increase racial acceptance and representation in the classroom? More importantly, how can educators make sure that every student succeeds?

Laura knows that the shift won’t happen overnight or with one wave of the hand, but the most important step is being aware that there’s a problem in the first place.

“We forget that our job is to give students an education that is responsive to their identity and cultural backgrounds… It means that we want to know what pleases and interests them, what saddens and shuts them down, what they are curious about, what sets their souls on fire,” Laura says. “This is about long-lasting impact and thinking about how to reorganize schools around the principles of love, justice, and joy.”