Peer-Reviewed Articles

A wide variety of research examines the presence, causes, and effects of the “school-to-prison pipeline” in American communities. Here, I discuss the work of Cuellar & Markowitz (2015) and Pigott, Stearns, and Khey (2017). Cuellar and Markowitz study the relationship between suspensions of students and their subsequent arrests, while Pigott, Stearns, and Khey focus on the role of school resource officers in pushing students out of schools and into the justice system.

Zero-tolerance policies:

Both articles discuss zero-tolerance policies as the root of the school-to-prison pipeline. Pigott, Stearns, and Khey (2017) point out that such policies originated in state and federal drug enforcement legislation in the 1980s. They cite rising fears of youth criminality throughout the 1980s and 90s as driving support for stricter disciplinary policies. The Gun-Free Schools Act emerged from this sentiment in 1994, mandating that any schools receiving federal funding impose a mandatory one-year expulsion for any student who brought a firearm to school (Pigott, Stearns, and Khey, 2017; Cuellar and Markowitz, 2015). Since then, similar policies have been expanded to include a wide range of infractions, including drug possession or use, fighting, or swearing (Ibid.).

Cuellar and Markowitz discuss that the intent of zero-tolerance policies is to act as a deterrent to rule-breaking, and they point out that some research suggests it might be effective in reducing future disciplinary incidents (2015). They also discuss the wide range of arguments and research criticizing these policies. Most significantly, they may not work: several studies suggest that suspensions are a predictor of future suspensions, which contradicts the idea that they deter rule-breaking (Cuellar and Markowitz, 2015). Additionally, Pigott et al. point out, they have been found to act as a predictor of dropping out and expulsion (2017). Both studies emphasize that students of color are disproportionately affected by these harsh disciplinary policies.

From schools to prisons:

These suspensions and expulsions theoretically act as the first step in the pipeline, both because in some cases they create an initial interaction between youth and the criminal justice system and because idle time out of school might increase the risk of other criminal behavior. Pigott, Stearns, and Khey (2017) emphasize the former, examining how the presence of school resource officers (SROs) turns issues that might have been handled at the discretion of teachers and administrators into criminal acts to be managed externally. They find, though, in an analysis of the 2009-2010 School Survey on Crime and Safety (SSOCS), that the presence of SROs does not seem to correlate with increased student removals from schools, and that the presence of any kind of security personnel results in a reduction of removals. They therefore conclude that advocacy against police presence in schools may not be effective in mitigating the school-to-prison pipeline (Pigott, Stearns, and Khey, 2017).

Cuellar and Markowitz analyze the latter effect, using data on disciplinary action in a school district over a 7-year period combined with data from the corresponding county juvenile justice system over the same period to study how suspensions might increase the likelihood of interaction with the criminal justice system. They find that suspensions do increase this likelihood: in their dataset, being suspended out-of-school on a school day leads to a more than doubled likelihood of a criminal offense. Additionally, they find that black students face an even larger effect in this regard (Cuellar and Markowitz, 2015). They conclude that suspension policies are potentially contributing to out-of-school crime rates, which they characterize as a substantial disadvantage to such policies.


Cuellar, A. E., & Markowitz, S. (2015). School suspension and the school-to-prison pipeline. International Review of Law and Economics, 43, 98-106.

Pigott, C., Stearns, A. E., & Khey, D. N. (2018). School Resource Officers and the School to Prison Pipeline: Discovering Trends of Expulsions in Public Schools. American Journal of Criminal Justice, 43(1), 120-138.