This website includes an overview of community, grassroots organizing around the topic of the school-to-prison pipeline in public education in the United States. Below is analytic description of the topic at large. Included in the other tabs is a look at specific grassroots groups work around this topic as well as journal articles analyzing this topic. Note: This website functions best when viewed in Google Chrome with the window fully expanded; images and graphics may not show up otherwise.
What is the school-to-prison pipeline?
The School-to-Prison Pipeline (STTP) describes the ways in which experiences in the classroom between students and teachers in early childhood connect to inequities in society later in life. Nathaniel Bryan writes, “The typical trajectory of the STTP begins with the disproportionate school suspensions, expulsions, assignments to special education classrooms, and the pushing and/or dropping out of school.”3
Bryan’s piece focuses on “Black boys”3 in school but he clarifies that his statements apply to other minority groups. This trajectory alludes to ways in which students in early education are disciplined. The aforementioned discipline, much of which is minor, becomes a major issues when it is frequent and disproportionately being received by Black boys. Bryan continues:
Black males experience increased surveillance of their bodies out of White and other teachers’ fear of losing classroom control and are disproportionately removed from classrooms for minor disciplinary infractions as a result of breaking capricious school and classroom rules, including arriving late to class, hat wearing, and/or wearing sagging pants in comparison with their White male counterparts. These incidents lead to their disproportionate assignments to high incidents special education and/or lower level/remedial courses (e.g. Emotional Disability) where they become listed among 60% of enrolled students who are most likely to drop out of school. Dropping out of school increases their likelihood of becoming a part of the criminal justice system where they become a part of the mass incarceration of Black (and Brown) men who are disproportionately arrested for minor criminal offenses in comparison to their White counterparts.3
In this explanation, Bryan sheds light on the domino effect, emphasizing that the STTP is not only rooted in the fact that simply more Black boys receive these types of discipline but also the frequency of this discipline and its evolution over time as these students get older and hold more responsibility.
How specifically does the school-to-prison pipeline play out?
STTP is developed in schools in both implicit ways of discipline but also explicit ways, like stationing police in the school. Emily Owens, Associate Professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society, and Economics at the University of California, Irvine, describes how police are used as anti-bullying measures. Owens describes the reasoning behind police in school:
[The police] serve two purposes: to maintain order and safety for the students and teachers in a way that a typical school security guard could not, and to positively interact with students on a daily basis, normalizing officers in the eyes of students and potentially improving police and community relations more broadly.7
Discipline in the classroom for minor infractions takes on a new meaning that will stay with students for the rest of their lives when federal law enforcement is intimately involved.
This presence of police in schools alone is powerful, but gains more power when it happens at earlier ages. Bryan asserts that “scholars undertheorize young Black boys entrance in the STTP in early childhood education.”3 He continues citing that Black boys are 9% of the kindergarten population but account for between 48% and 50% of all suspensions and expulsions at this level, which is the highest among all racial and ethnic groups, describing a quick transition from “brilliant babies” to “children at risk.”3
He explains that “Black boys often experience ‘men-like’ consequences in school discipline,”3 which accelerates the entrance into and through the STTP. In addition to the impact on Black boys in school, White students, particularly at young ages, are socialized in the context of this discrimination, gaining an understanding of a system that involves superior versus inferior. Because most teachers in urban public schools are White, it becomes clear how, in part, the cycle of STTP continues.
What are other intersecting factors involved in the school-to-prison pipeline?
Separate from explicit discipline early on, test scores serve as predictors for Black boys chances of being in jail later in life. Bryan explains, “Third and fourth grade reading test score data is used to determine future prison spatial needs; thus heightening the systemic failure of Black males as early as early childhood education and the chances of Black male to fill those spaces in prison.”3 The use of test scores as a predictor for space needed in jails highlights how systematic, consistent, and deeply embedded the STTP is.
What is the difference between “schooling” and “education” and why is this important for the school-to-prison pipeline?
In Bryan’s piece, he cites Mwalimu J. Shujaa, a professor and dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Southern University in New Orleans, Louisiana. Shujaa explains that schooling is a process that is simply designed to marginalize African-centered educational practices in order to discipline and control Black bodies and subject them to the lower rungs of societal totem pole; whereas, education ‘is the process of transmitting from one generation to the next knowledge of values, aesthetics, spiritual beliefs, and all things that give a particular culture orientation its uniqueness.’”3
How can the school-to-pipeline be resisted?
David Stovall, professor of Educational Policy Studies and African-American Studies at University of Illinois at Chicago, offers “a framework for resisting neoliberal educational trends moving forward.”10 This framework lists four “tenets” including:
Conceptual: Examining the racialization of a controversy and the interconnecting influences of heterosexism, patriarchy, and class while location that examination in a critique of the political economy.
Performative: Answering the question as to what practice steps are responsive to the specific claim and who should act on that claim.
Material: Inquiring into change, both socio-structural and the remaking of the democratic structure of public institutions, in the material conditions of racial oppression. Examples would include access to fair housing, health care, quality education, employment, etc.
Reflexive: Commitment to the continue rebuilding of theory in light of the practical experiences of racial groups in particular anti-racist struggles.
This framework can provide structure and strategy for teachers and schools to revisit their approach to teaching in an effort to create a place for learning that offers equal opportunity for all students and recognizes individual needs based on culture, background, and level of education. However, frameworks like these must strike a balance of being realistic enough for teachers and schools to implement given the limited resources they have.10
Why is this important to understand and incorporate into policy-making as well as the classroom?
The mass incarceration of Black men plagues the United States society, and it begins as early as kindergarten. This system is perpetuated in the ways that Black boys are disciplined, the superiority White students gain as a result, and the fact that teachers in urban settings are overwhelmingly white. While frameworks that offer explicit opportunity for schools and teachers to make changes can be effective, it is often more implicit changes that make the most impact.