The School to Prison Pipeline

By: Justin Owens

The School To Prison Pipeline

Imagine a student walking into school feeling irritable. On the way to class, he is stopped by an on-campus police officer because his uniform is dirty. The student sasses the officer and the officer responds by asking the student to empty his pockets. Nail clippers were found and he is immediately arrested for possession of a weapon. Now imagine that student before school. He wakes up early to do his homework after his night job to support his mom, who has three jobs, and finds nothing in the cupboards and no clean clothes. He must get his brothers and sisters, who experienced a gunman shooting on the schoolyard the day before, ready for the day and walk them to school as their heroic mother goes to her first job of the day. On the way, he clips his nails and tries to look presentable and slips the nail clippers in his pocket.

At an alarmingly disproportionate rate, students of color, poor students, and disabled students in America are being pushed out of educational institutions and into juvenile/adult criminal justice systems. This has become known as the School to Prison Pipeline (STPP) and over the past decade many laws and policies are directly contributing to this social problem.

One law is the “Zero-Tolerance” policy. This policy is the strict enforcement of predetermined punishment, usually suspension or expulsion, without notion to circumstance. Schools adopted this method as a response to weapons, drugs, gang violence, fights on campus, and other behavioral issues.  The Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 was the first to set off widespread policy changes and was the impetus for zero-tolerance. As The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence defines it: “The Gun-Free Schools Act (GFSA) imposes a federal requirement on school districts to adopt a gun-free schools position that requires zero-tolerance policies and minimum one-year expulsions from school for gun possession in exchange for federal funds for district schools.” The act also requires the school to report any offenders to the criminal justice system, effectively blurring the lines between criminality and school infraction. This table shows the high amount of schools that adopted zero-tolerance directly after the years of GFSA.


As one can see, almost all schools had adopted these policies in the years of ‘96 to ’97. A most recent account of the STPP happened on January 1, 2017 in Missouri. The state government implemented a policy that said: “If a person commits the offense of an assault in the third degree this will now be classified as a Class E Felony, rather than a misdemeanor. If he or she knowingly causes physical injury to another person (hits someone or has a fight with another individual and an injury occurs) – one or both participants may be charged with a Felony.” Instead of the school handling their own students’ discipline, police step in and children are forced into the criminal justice system. Zero-tolerance does not differentiate based on the seriousness of the offense.

Another law set in place over the past 10 years was the No Child Left Behind Act. This legislation was passed by George W. Bush in 2002; it was an update of previously existing statutes known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Growing concern for our nation’s educational standards led to this being signed. It put attention on raising the scores of students who were “trailing behind” the academic standard, e.g. English-language learners, students in special education and poor and minoritized students. If schools did not comply, they risked losing their federal funding. This law incentivized pushing lower performing students out of academic programs to raise proficiency statistics. Schools are kept on track by something called “adequate yearly progress” (AYP). If a school falls behind the achievement goals, they are labeled as “not making the AYP” and must may lose funding (even if it is already impoverished) or be subject to state review/control. The No Child Left Behind Act has done little to nothing for improving the U.S. education system. The act was supposed to bring one hundred percent of students in the U.S. above the proficiency level by 2013-14, a deadline that came and went unfulfilled. In 2007, Title I federal funding was supposed to rise to $25 billion but in 2015, funding was at $14.5 billion. The No Child Left Behind Act is a failed legislation that harms the education system greatly by encouraging officials to kick students out of school.

Something that is missing from most data surrounding the STPP is the actual voices of the students. There is a large movement of youth speaking out against the failure to them. In the student-produced video, “What We Carry On Our Backs: The School to Prison Pipeline”, these voices are presented:

“I can’t believe I got suspended for being in the hallway when I wasn’t supposed to be. And because I’m so ‘small and dumb’ I can’t even graduate. They don’t even trust us to be in the hall by ourselves. Man, I swear I might as well be in jail, they already treat me like I’m in one.”

“This is crazy, I didn’t even do anything, like, I’m trying to sit in class and I’m trying to learn but I can’t because it’s annoying and loud and I can’t focus on what the teachers are trying to say. I feel scared. What’s going to happen to me while I’m out here instead of school? Will I get arrested? It’s like I’m set up for failure. This school is not going to do anything for me. I don’t want to go back. I’m not learning anything there – so why should I go back? But now I don’t have anywhere to go.”

“I try to do well in school with the resources we have, but sometimes it seems impossible. All we do is prepare for tests, we don’t have enough books in class and the classrooms are crowded and the teachers can’t just teach. Math isn’t easy for me and I struggle to understand the work. In my geometry class, my peers won’t focus and I can’t get the teachers help – he’s too busy trying to keep the students attention. I want to learn but the classroom isn’t the place to do that anymore. Why even try?”

One thing that is clear in the literature around STPP, there is an over representation of minority students being pushed through this pipeline. Over 37 percent of the United States prison population is Black, compared to the 12 percent in the national population. People are linking the statistic that African American youth are at an even higher risk of being suspended or expelled from school for minor infractions to the higher representation in the criminal justice system. The graphic below shows the rates of suspension based on race.


As is evident, from 2004-2012, youth of color were suspended at a much higher rate.

It begins with criminalizing our nation’s children of color. The media portrayal of Black and Hispanic youth, particularly the over representation in crime news cycles, has altered public perception. The average American watches over four hours of television everyday. Gangs of “super-predators” are fabricated by news cycles by over-representing African American and Hispanic offenders with white victims. People of color are more likely to be seen as criminals on television –  “four times more likely than whites to be seen in a mug shot, twice as likely to be shown in physical restraints, and 2 times less likely to be identified by name” (Heitzeg 2009, 6) – and it certainly extends to youth. Violent crime coverage consists of nearly two thirds youth under twenty-five, estimates show. Fueled by the war on drugs, exaggeration of non-white gang activity in media whipped the public into a state of panic. This widespread perception has real life implications for attitudes towards youth of color in respects to teachers, public officials, police, and the general public. Along with the high school push-out rates, this criminalization is an explicit link to the school to prison pipeline. The reasons for it are deeply veined in the history of this country, tied to American anti-Blackness and Black suppression, but the accounts more directly tied to the STPP include pushing political rhetoric and feeding the prison industrial complex.

Since the 1990’s, incarceration rates have shot up mostly due to the War on Drugs and lengthy mandatory minimums; and, as in most statistics concerning the U.S. criminal justice system, African Americans and Hispanics are over represented in these rates. The table below represents this for Rhode Island communities.


All over the country, this is happening; Black people are being arrested at higher rates. It is ever so evident in Rhode Island and it doesn’t stop for adolescents. Black youth makes up 16 percent of the juvenile population and between 2003 and 2013, the population of Black kids committed to prison grew from 38 percent to 40 percent. The United States has less than five percent of the world’s population but nearly 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population. Over 50 percent of the federal prison population is from drug arrests and 31 percent of drug law violations is represented by Black people. The War on Drugs was a campaign to end the manufacturing, import and sale of illegal substances. It gave police the ability to screen poor and mostly colored communities and make arrests at high rates. Lengthy mandatory minimums result in people being locked away for years without notion to circumstance, much like zero-tolerance policies. Filling the prisons with people of color is a form of “neo-slavery” running along the side of the prison industrial complex that is designed to make profit. Financial gains are generated in this way by cheap inmate labor, construction contracts, jobs created for laborers and criminal justice professionals, and media generated profits.

“The prison industrial complex is not a conspiracy, but a confluence of special interests that include politicians who exploit crime to win votes, private companies that make millions by running or supplying prisons and small town officials who have turned to prisons as a method of economic development.” (Silverstein 1997)

These interests turn even more sinister when the effects, like the school to prison pipeline, are applied to the United States educational system.

So how does it end? First off, schools must quit their gross overuse of police. There is little actual need for any arrests to happen on campus. Instead, faculty should be trained in talking students down and dealing with them in a restorative way. Law enforcement should be for emergency use only. Secondly, the staff to student ratio should be improved. In order to shy away from harsh disciplinary policies, there must first be enough staff to implement conflict resolution practices. Additionally, access to counseling for students and their families should be made available through hiring more counseling staff. Also, Standardized testing should have less emphasis. A study shows that students are more likely to disengage when classrooms are focused on preparing for tests of which success is entirely based on. Another way to end the STPP is to offer college and career prep classes. Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and without good support are less likely to seek higher education or spot career opportunities. Lastly, alternative discipline, like restorative justice, must be instated. Dr. Brenda Lewis has a first-hand account of the wonders of restorative justice. She said,

Since 2010, when we initiated our exploration of and planning for Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports and Restorative Practices, Kern High School District has reduced the total expulsions from 1,096 students in 2010-2011, to 66 total expulsions in school-year 2014-2015.”

These changes must be made in schools in order to break down the horrific trend of the school to prison pipeline.

Compulsory education is a promise to the American people made by the american government. The people are expected to afford amounts of trust to the government to honor that promise. This trust, it seems, has been repaid with shortcomings and deceit in many forms, one of which is the School to Prison Pipeline.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. pearlstark says:

    The way you started your essy was super effective in capturing my attention. I think your topic is so important, and needs to be taked about more. I am very glad that a group did this topic. As children still in school and seeing or feeling the effects of the school to prison pipeline we have a unique perspective on this issue.


  2. Mia teller says:

    as always justin u r super eloquent and clear in explaining your topic. LIke Pearl said, I think this is super important and probably one of the most pressing problems our country faces today. In addition to the writing I think the infographics you chose to insert were really effective in tying the whole piece together and making it both interesting and informative !


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