Professional Articles

Two articles in Education Week blogs explore the roots of the school to prison pipeline. Both place emphasis on the role of trauma. Marquisha Spencer (2017), an Education PhD student at Claremont Graduate University, writes on the presence of police in schools and how their involvement in disciplinary issues can negatively impact students and feed the school-to-prison pipeline, emphasizing the experience of boys and young men of color. Sarah D. Sparks (2018), an education researcher and reporter for Education Week, focuses on how gender intersects with the school to prison pipeline, and how a history of trauma in girls sets them up for future encounters with the criminal justice system.

The Problem:

Spencer (2017) outlines the complexity of the school-to-prison pipeline, discussing the ways in which communities of color are disproportionately affected by harsh disciplinary policies in schools. She mentions that schools with larger non-white populations are more likely to use employ more invasive surveillance of their students, stricter disciplinary action, and involve police in minor infractions (Spencer, 2017). Students of color in California, Spencer points out, are referred to police for disciplinary issues more than twice as often as their white counterparts (2017). Some students have also experienced traumatizing brutality at the hands of police in schools, creating violence in disciplinary action that could have otherwise been resolved peacefully. Those students who enter the criminal justice system from in-school infractions are also less likely to return to school than those from other infractions, setting them up for additional hurdles later in life (Spencer, 2017).

Sparks (2018) calls attention to the plight of girls, and in particular, girls of color. She points out that black girls in the District of Columbia are now 30 times more likely than white girls to be arrested (Sparks, 2018). The arrest rate for girls in DC has risen by 87% in the past decade, while arrests of boys declined 22% (Ibid.). The vast majority— 86%—  of arrests of girls come from non-violent offenses, and Sparks suggests that the infractions for which girls are arrested do not, in general, pose a threat to public safety (2018). Instead, girls are targeted— especially by exclusionary school disciplinary policies— for not conforming to societal expectations of gendered behavior (Sparks, 2018). The experience of girls of color in the criminal justice system is connected, Sparks suggests, to childhood traumas (2018). Nationally, 75% of girls in the juvenile justice system have experienced physical or sexual abuse. In DC, two thirds of black girls in a study by Georgetown’s Juvenile Justice Initiative had experienced childhood trauma— four times the rate of the white girls in the study (Sparks, 2018).

Moving forward:

Both authors make the argument for a more compassionate justice system and school discipline policies. Sparks emphasizes the need for trauma-informed care in the criminal justice system, as well as coordination between schools and criminal justice apparati in order to reduce the extent to which girls are impacted by these policies (2018). Spencer advocates for more extensive training for SROs in order to help them contribute more productively to school disciplinary practice (2017). She also believes that inclusion of SROs in the school and parent community will make them more attentive to students’ well-being (Spencer, 2017).


Sparks, S.D. (2018, March 22). In Washington, Trauma Feeds the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Particularly for Girls [Web log message]. Retrieved from Education Week’s “Inside School Research” Blog.

Spencer, M. (2017, June 23). Are School Police Feeding the School-to-Prison Pipeline? [Web log message]. Retrieved from Education Week’s “On California” Blog.