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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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