The School-to-Prison Pipeline

“In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunities of an education.  Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right that must be made available on equal terms.”
– Chief Justice Earl Warren, Brown v. Board of Education (1954) 1



The school-to-prison pipeline refers to a system in which young students are entering the criminal justice system as a result of certain school policies that force them out of their schools and into prison. Students of color, particularly black and Latinos, as well as students with disabilities are particularly attacked by this system.  The education system is supposed to serve as a foundation for success and enable equal opportunities for all but, ironically, is instead targeting particular groups of students and punishing them severely for minor infractions. There are a plethora of school policies that dominate the modern school system that are known to contribute significantly to this pipeline effect. One of the most widely discussed policies that is targeted by almost all organizations combatting the school to prison pipeline is the reliance on zero tolerance policies. 2 Zero tolerance policies are defined as “policies that mandate predetermined, typically harsh consequences or punishments for a wide degree of rule violation.” 3 This ultimately means that they do not account for the variety of circumstances which may have contributed to an individual’s actions and therefore lead to a sense of distrust and alienation between the students and the administration.  By not accounting for the events which may have contributed to students’ behavior and simply administering harsh consequences, the personal lives of the students are discredited and the likelihood of establishing good relationships between the students and the faculty and/or administration is diminished.  Furthermore, zero tolerance policies in particular are known to target black and Latinos, affecting them at a much higher rate than their white peers. They also contribute to higher dropout rates in general. 3 Even if the students do remain in school, these zero tolerance policies commonly contribute to a significant decrease in their academic success because many experience a loss of confidence and are less willing to exhibit effort that they feel will be unrecognized and therefore worthless. 4

Additionally, the administration enhances the school-to-prison pipeline when they choose to rely on frequent expulsions and suspensions, even when the student’s offense was incredibly minor, rather than more restorative forms of punishment. Expulsions and suspensions may be necessary at times, but many schools often choose these forms of punishment as the only option and don’t recognize that they often contribute to a student’s isolation from the school and therefore increase their risk of incarceration in the future. In fact, it was been concluded that youth who are “incarcerated were a staggering 67 percent more likely to be in jail (again) by the age of 25 than similar young offenders who didn’t go to prison.” 5  In order to help children develop and expand intellectually, it is essential that we learn how to address behavioral issues in a more reformative manner rather than simply neglecting them and encouraging them to leave the education system entirely.




Did you know?

70% of students who experience
“in-school” arrests are black or Latino. 1

40% of students who receive expulsions from school
as a form of punishment are black. 1

In Wake County, NC, black students are suspended
times more frequently than white students,
even if their actions are identical. 6

In the 2010 – 2011 school year, there were more than
40,000 out-of-school suspensions that were reported as
part of the Chicago Public School System. 7

Is it worth putting undeserving students in jail?
The cost of one individual in jail is
approximately $60,000 every year. 8

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