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The Dangers of the “School-to-Prison Pipeline”

August 13, 2015

The term “school-to-prison pipeline” has become increasingly prominent in education policy. The term refers to the relationship between punitive disciplinary measures and later involvement in the criminal justice system.[1]  As the United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world, an increase in our incarcerated population has grave social and economic consequences. As involvement in school disciplinary actions is an indicator of future involvement in the criminal justice system, the school-to-prison pipeline requires recognition.

By Camden Copeland, C’16

Exclusionary discipline policies such as zero tolerance have heavily impacted school-to-prison pipeline. Exclusionary discipline includes out of school suspension and expulsion. Other forms of punitive disciplinary action are school related arrests and referrals to law enforcement. While these methods provide safety for other students and reduce distractions in the classroom, they are not the most effective way of improving behavior. In addition, students who are suspended are more likely to drop out or enter the juvenile justice system.[2]

As defined by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, zero tolerance, “assigns explicit predetermined punishments to specific violations of school rules, regardless of the situation or context of the behavior.”[3]  Zero tolerance in schools reflects a federal policy adopted by US Attorney General Edwin Meese in 1988. The law ordered customs officials to seize and charge anyone carrying drugs across the border with possession. Zero tolerance policies became adopted widely in schools in the late 90s after the Columbine shooting.[4] While such policies can be used as a punishment for weapons and drugs, they are also used for situations of absence, uniform violations, or behavioral misconduct such as talking back to a teacher. Many of these varied actions have the same aforementioned exclusionary consequences.  

In order to prevent drugs and weapons from entering schools, many schools have hired security guards and require students to walk through metal detectors. These preventative measures can make students feel like criminals before as they enter their school. Many schools also conduct random locker searches for drugs, weapons or other banned contraband. This method of creating a safe school environment is also reflects a prison-like environment.

Combined, these punitive and exclusionary disciplinary measures have had unintended consequences. “What was sacrificed along the way was an institutional commitment to fairness, due process in administering discipline, getting to the root of conflicts, and coming up with solutions that would likely prevent future conflicts,” said Harold Jordan of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.[5]  School exclusion has not deterred students from misbehavior and it has negative consequences in the surrounding communities.[6]

Zero tolerance and exclusionary policies have also disproportionately affected African American and Latino students and students with disabilities. In 2011-12 the out of school suspension rate for secondary school students was 23.2% for Blacks, 10.8% for Latinos and 6.7% for Whites. In the same year students with disabilities were suspended at a rate of 18.1% while students without disabilities at a rate of 5.4%.[7]

Current research shows that implicit biases, stereotyping, and cultural factors contribute to these disparities. For example, due to the fact that Black girls are perceived to be, “unruly, loud and unmanageable,” teachers encourage them to exhibit more feminine qualities like passivity and being silent.[8] Stereotypes regarding the danger of Black and Latino men can also contribute to harsh and fast discipline as opposed to approaching issues of behavioral misconduct with restorative justice. The behavior of students with disabilities can be misunderstood by school police officers and teachers and can lead to an increased exclusion from classrooms for this population.

The actions and consequences that exacerbate a student’s situation from school suspension to expulsion or referrals to law enforcement are varied. But, students who are expelled or suspended are nearly three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year.[9] Some students may continue or deepen their involvement with drugs and violence. Others may have missed too much school from suspension or feel pushed out of the classroom and they drop out. Not having a high school diploma can lead to financial hardships and involvement in criminal activity or debt.

Of the current prison population, 68% of males in state and federal prison do not have a high school diploma. Blacks and Latinos make up 30% of the United States population but 60% of the incarcerated population.[10] These connections are no coincidence. Furthermore, recent evaluations of state budgets show that more money is being spent to house the prison populations than to educate students. This year California is expected to spend $62,000 on each prison inmate while they will spend $9,200 on each K-12 student.[11] Instead of tax dollars being invested in schools which will provide the government and society a greater return on investment, they are being spent on prisons and jails which do not yield such returns.

Exclusionary disciplinary policies have negative economic impacts beyond the cost of providing housing, food, and medical care for an inmate. The racial disparities in discipline further perpetuate social, economic and educational disparities between Black, Latino and White students. The lack of economic opportunity is especially important for Black women when examining exclusionary disciplinary problems and the school to prison pipeline. Kimberle Crenshaw says, “Given the economic dependence of so many Black children on a female wage earner, girls dropping out of high school is of huge socioeconomic concern.”[12]

The current state of school discipline is funneling students out of schools and into the prison system. Zero tolerance and exclusionary discipline policies have not made schools safer and exacerbate the racial inequalities in prisons and society. The economic repercussions of incarcerating and failing to educate students can be felt for generations.


The progression of students to prison: The School to Prison Pipeline

  [1] Crenshaw, Kimberle, Priscilla Ocen and Jyoti Nanda. Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out,

Overpoliced and Underprotected. Feb. 4, 2015. http://www.atlanticphilanthropies.org/sites/default/files/uploads/BlackGirlsMatter_Report.pdf

  [2] Losen, Daniel, Cheri Hodson, Michael A, Keith II, Katrina Morrison, Shakti Belway. Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap? Feb., 2015. http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/resources/projects/center-for-civil-rights-remedies/school-to-prison-folder/federal-reports/are-we-closing-the-school-discipline-gap/AreWeClosingTheSchoolDisciplineGap_FINAL221.pdf

  [3] Harold. Beyond Zero Tolerance: Disciplining and Policing in Pennsylvania Schools. Feb, 2015 http://www.aclupa.org/files/6914/3144/0044/2-16-

  [4] Ibid.

  [5] Harold 2015

  [6] Ibid.

  [7] Losen et al. 2015

  [8] Crenshaw, Ocen and Nanda 2015

  [9] ACLU, “School-to-Prison Pipeline [Infographic].”July 10,2015. https://www.aclu.org/infographic/school-prison-pipeline-infographic

  [10] Amurao, Carla. “Fact Sheet: How Bad is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?” PBS. March

28, 2014. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/tavissmiley/tsr/education-under-

  [11] Hanson, Kathryn and Deborah Stipek. “Schools vs. Prisons: Education’s the Way to Cut Prison Population.” San Jose Mercury News. May 16, 2014. http://www.mercurynews.com/opinion/ci_25771303/schools-v-prisons-educations-way-cut-prison-population

  [12] Crenshaw, Ocen and Nando, 2015.

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  • <h3>National Center for Education Statistics</h3><p><strong><img width="400" height="80" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/400/height/80/479_nces.rev.1407787656.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image479 lw_align_right" data-max-w="400" data-max-h="80"/>The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the primary federal entity for collecting and analyzing data related to education in the U.S. and other nations.</strong> NCES is located within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences. NCES has an extensive Statistical Standards Program that consults and advises on methodological and statistical aspects involved in the design, collection, and analysis of data collections in the Center. To learn more about the NCES, <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/about/" target="_blank">click here</a>.</p><p> Quick link to NCES Data Tools: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/datatools/index.asp?DataToolSectionID=4</a></p><p> Quick link to Quick Tables and Figures: <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/quicktables/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCES Fast Facts (Note: The primary purpose of the Fast Facts website is to provide users with concise information on a range of educational issues, from early childhood to adult learning.): <a href="http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/" target="_blank">http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/#</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>NOAA National Climatic Data Center</h3><p><img width="200" height="198" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image483 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/198/483_noaa_logo.rev.1407788692.jpg 3x" data-max-w="954" data-max-h="945"/>NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) is responsible for preserving, monitoring, assessing, and providing public access to the Nation’s treasure of <strong>climate and historical weather data and information</strong>.</p><p> Quick link to home page: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/</a></p><p> Quick link to NCDC’s climate and weather datasets, products, and various web pages and resources: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/data-access/quick-links</a></p><p> Quick link to Text & Map Search: <a href="http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/" target="_blank">http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/cdo-web/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>MapStats</h3><p> A feature of FedStats, MapStats allows users to search for <strong>state, county, city, congressional district, or Federal judicial district data</strong> (demographic, economic, and geographic).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/" target="_blank">http://www.fedstats.gov/mapstats/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED®)</h3><p><strong><img width="180" height="79" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/79/481_fred-logo.rev.1407788243.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image481 lw_align_right" data-max-w="222" data-max-h="97"/>An online database consisting of more than 72,000 economic data time series from 54 national, international, public, and private sources.</strong> FRED®, created and maintained by Research Department at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, goes far beyond simply providing data: It combines data with a powerful mix of tools that help the user understand, interact with, display, and disseminate the data.</p><p> Quick link to data page: <a href="http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series" target="_blank">http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/tags/series</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>USDA Nutrition Assistance Data</h3><p><img width="180" height="124" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image485 lw_align_right" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/180/height/124/485_usda_logo.rev.1407789238.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1233" data-max-h="850"/>Data and research regarding the following <strong>USDA Nutrition Assistance</strong> programs are available through this site:</p><ul><li>Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) </li><li>Food Distribution Programs </li><li>School Meals </li><li>Women, Infants and Children </li></ul><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics" target="_blank">http://www.fns.usda.gov/data-and-statistics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Congressional Budget Office</h3><p><img width="180" height="180" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/180/380_cbo-logo.rev.1406822035.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image380 lw_align_right" data-max-w="180" data-max-h="180"/>Since its founding in 1974, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has produced independent analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the Congressional budget process.</p><p> The agency is strictly nonpartisan and conducts objective, impartial analysis, which is evident in each of the dozens of reports and hundreds of cost estimates that its economists and policy analysts produce each year. CBO does not make policy recommendations, and each report and cost estimate discloses the agency’s assumptions and methodologies. <strong>CBO provides budgetary and economic information in a variety of ways and at various points in the legislative process.</strong> Products include baseline budget projections and economic forecasts, analysis of the President’s budget, cost estimates, analysis of federal mandates, working papers, and more.</p><p> Quick link to Products page: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/about/our-products</a></p><p> Quick link to Topics: <a href="http://www.cbo.gov/topics" target="_blank">http://www.cbo.gov/topics</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>HUD State of the Cities Data Systems</h3><p><strong><img width="200" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image482 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/200/height/200/482_hud_logo.rev.1407788472.jpg 3x" data-max-w="612" data-max-h="613"/>The SOCDS provides data for individual Metropolitan Areas, Central Cities, and Suburbs.</strong> It is a portal for non-national data made available through a number of outside institutions (e.g. Census, BLS, FBI and others).</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html" target="_blank">http://www.huduser.org/portal/datasets/socds.html</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The World Bank Data (U.S.)</h3><p><img width="130" height="118" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image484 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/130/height/118/484_world-bank-logo.rev.1407788945.jpg 3x" data-max-w="1406" data-max-h="1275"/>The <strong>World Bank</strong> provides World Development Indicators, Surveys, and data on Finances and Climate Change.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states" target="_blank">http://data.worldbank.org/country/united-states</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>National Bureau of Economic Research (Public Use Data Archive)</h3><p><img width="180" height="43" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/180/height/43/478_nber.rev.1407530465.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image478 lw_align_right" data-max-w="329" data-max-h="79"/>Founded in 1920, the <strong>National Bureau of Economic Research</strong> is a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of how the economy works. The NBER is committed to undertaking and disseminating unbiased economic research among public policymakers, business professionals, and the academic community.</p><p> Quick Link to <strong>Public Use Data Archive</strong>: <a href="http://www.nber.org/data/" target="_blank">http://www.nber.org/data/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Internal Revenue Service: Tax Statistics</h3><p><img width="155" height="200" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image486 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/155/height/200/486_irs_logo.rev.1407789424.jpg 2x" data-max-w="463" data-max-h="596"/>Find statistics on business tax, individual tax, charitable and exempt organizations, IRS operations and budget, and income (SOI), as well as statistics by form, products, publications, papers, and other IRS data.</p><p> Quick link to <strong>Tax Statistics, where you will find a wide range of tables, articles, and data</strong> that describe and measure elements of the U.S. tax system: <a href="http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2" target="_blank">http://www.irs.gov/uac/Tax-Stats-2</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>Federal Aviation Administration: Accident & Incident Data</h3><p><img width="100" height="100" alt="" src="/live/image/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg" class="lw_image lw_image80 lw_align_left" srcset="/live/image/scale/2x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 2x, /live/image/scale/3x/gid/4/width/100/height/100/80_faa-logo.rev.1402681347.jpg 3x" data-max-w="550" data-max-h="550"/>The NTSB issues an accident report following each investigation. These reports are available online for reports issued since 1996, with older reports coming online soon. The reports listing is sortable by the event date, report date, city, and state.</p><p> Quick link: <a href="http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/" target="_blank">http://www.faa.gov/data_research/accident_incident/</a></p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>
  • <h3>The Penn World Table</h3><p> The Penn World Table provides purchasing power parity and national income accounts converted to international prices for 189 countries/territories for some or all of the years 1950-2010.</p><p><a href="https://pwt.sas.upenn.edu/php_site/pwt71/pwt71_form.php" target="_blank">Quick link.</a> </p><p>See all <a href="/data-resources/">data and resources</a> »</p>