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Understanding The School-To-Prison Pipeline

Dear Future Teachers,

The current US school system is far from perfect. It's imperative that we understand all of the complexities of the system that can and do impact our students. If you haven't read my BLM in the Classroom post, I highly recommend checking it out, as it ties in with today's topic: The School-To-Prison Pipeline. While this subject may be uncomfortable or disheartening, I urge you not to turn away, but to read, learn, research, and adjust so that we can create a better school environment for our kiddos.

What IS the School-To-Prison Pipeline?

The School-To-Prison Pipeline occurs when the "criminalization of children and youth, excessive and exclusionary school discipline policies, and juvenile justice involvement push children and youth into or deeper into the criminal justice system." (Princeton University).

Who is most impacted?

Black students are disproportionately impacted by disciplinary procedures in schools. According to The Equality Institute, Black students are disciplined more in school, though they do not misbehave at greater rates than their white peers, and they only make up 15.2% of U.S. public school students.

The unjust disciplinary procedures begin in PRE-SCHOOL! Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that Black children are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended from pre-school than white students, even though fewer Black students are enrolled. This data also shows that Black girls are even more adversely impacted than Black boys.

Not only are Black students disciplined at a higher rate, but they are more likely to receive harsher punishments than their white peers. In the book Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives in Good Schools, Amanda E. Lewis and John B. Diamond discuss differential selection and differential processing.

  • Differential selection is "institutional practices that might lead minorities to get picked out for wrongdoing more often than their white colleagues, despite similar levels of misbehaving."

  • Differential processing can be described as "institutional practices that might lead minorities, once singled out for wrongdoing, to receive different sanctions for similar transgressions."

When Black students or students of color are disproportionately punished in schools, they are more likely to struggle in academic environments, more likely to dropout, and more likely to get involved in the judicial system. This widens the opportunity gap between white students and students of color, further perpetuating inequities within the education system and, consequently, in broader society.

What causes the School-To-Prison Pipeline?

The ACLU believes that the pipeline begins with inadequate resources in schools. "Overcrowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers, and insufficient funding for 'extras' such as counselors, special education services, and even textbooks, lock students into second rate educational environments." When students don't have the proper resources to succeed, they are more likely to become disengaged and dropout; which increases their future court involvement.

How do prison-like conditions manifest in schools?

  • Zero tolerance policies: impose immediate severe punishment to students regardless of circumstances. By suspending or expelling students, even for small infractions, many students fall behind in schools, and are increasingly likely to get involved in the justice system. 95% of school suspensions are for offenses like: scribbling on desks, hugging a friend, and playing music on a cellphone. (Information provided by ACLU)

  • Policing school hallways: puts more emphasis on reliance on police rather than on teachers and administrators to address misbehavior. Not only can this make students feel uncomfortable, but it increases the amount of school-based arrests, even for non-violent behavior. Black students make up 31% of school arrests. (ACLU)

  • Disciplinary alternative schools: are schools that some students are sent to due to misbehavior, however many of these institutions don't provide adequate educational opportunities to students and can continue to funnel students to the juvenile justice system. (ACLU)

  • Surveillance cameras, police dogs, armed guards, metal detectors, physically uninviting school buildings: can lead to excessive policing of students

  • School and local police on campus: 1.7 million students are in schools with police but no counselors; 3 million students are in schools with police but no nurses; 6 million students are in schools with police but no psychologists; 10 million students are in schools with police but no social workers; and 14 million students are in school with police but no counselors, nurses, psychologists, OR social workers (numbers provided by ACLU)

  • Racially biased school rules: Rules that police cultural elements of a child's appearance (banning hairstyles commonly worn by Black students, banning cultural clothing, etc.) unfairly target students of color. In schools with zero-tolerance policies, this can be even more damaging as it specifically targets and excludes Black students and students of color.

(Image found at )

How are students impacted by the pipeline?

Harsh and targeted disciplinary actions can widen the education and opportunity gap between white students and students of color. When students of color are punished more and face more severe punishments, they are more likely to become victims to low achievement, high dropout rates, and increased likelihood of becoming incarcerated. Once in the justice system, many individuals become psychologically impacted and are more likely to remain in the justice system. Educational and financial opportunities are negatively impacted and the chances of reincarceration are elevated. ( It's also a lot harder for students to re-enter traditional schools after entering the juvenile justice system, therefore many of these students never graduate from high school (ACLU).

What can we do?

  • Check our own implicit bias and evaluate how we discipline students in our own classrooms and school buildings

  • Integrate restorative justice practices (a future post diving deeper into this concept is in the works)

  • Move away from using police officers and hire more counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists in schools

  • Eliminate the zero-tolerance policies

The contents of this post are not exhaustive. I encourage you to continue your own research in understanding the School-To-Prison Pipeline and how deeply engrained it is in our school system. Schools should not focus on kicking students out, but should provide all of the resources necessary for every child to have a shot at succeeding. If you have any more resources on this topic I encourage you to share them with me so that I can continue to learn too! Also, if you have more ideas about how to eliminate the School-To-Prison Pipeline, send them in through my Contact Form on the home page, or email me at!

Much Love,

Emily B.

Sources and extra information explaining the School-To-Prison Pipeline:

Despite the Best Intentions: How Racial Inequality Thrives In Good Schools by Lewis and Diamond

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