By: Cecilia Nieto

When most children arrive for school, they don’t consider the possibility of being handcuffed and arrested on campus for a minor indiscretion—traditionally disciplined by detention or a trip to the principal’s office. However, the school-to-prison pipeline, a phenomenon creating a gateway between the classroom and incarceration, has been compromising the futures of young American students for years.[1] In fact, the first Congressional hearing on the issue was held over six years ago, focusing on how increased rates of school suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to the juvenile justice system are “depriving many children of their fundamental right to an education.”[2] Despite widespread recognition and concern, the epidemic of over-policed schools “funneling students into the criminal justice system” continues today.[3]

Two major trends in education systems perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline: (1) school disciplinary practices escalating the number of suspensions for “nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect,” and (2) reliance on harsh and unnecessary zero-tolerance policies for misbehavior, “increasing the likelihood of interaction with law enforcement and future incarceration.”[4] Schools essentially criminalize normal adolescent antics: “pushing and shoving in the schoolyard is now a battery, and talking back is now disorderly conduct.”[5]

However, the underlying reason behind these destructive practices is “inadequate resources in public schools,” resulting in “[o]vercrowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers, and insufficient funding for ‘extras’ such as counselors [and] special education services,”[6] The surge in school shootings has also influenced the adoption of zero-tolerance policies for seemingly innocuous actions like “bringing nail clippers or scissors to school.”[7] The frequency of “school-based arrests,” especially for nonviolent offenses, is amplified by the employment of school resource officers (SRO’s), usually without adequate training in working with adolescents.[8]

It is undisputed that the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affects students of color and students with disabilities.[9] For instance, “[s]tudents of color—who are far more likely than their white peers to be suspended, expelled, or arrested for the same kind of conduct at school—and those with disabilities are particularly likely to travel down this pipeline.”[10] Additionally, up to 85% of incarcerated youth have disabilities, but only 37% receive special education services while in school.[11]

Earlier this year, a sixth-grade boy in Florida got into a dispute with his substitute teacher when he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, explaining that he believed it was “‘racist’ against black people.”[12] After the boy yelled at the SRO and refused to leave the classroom, he was arrested, taken to a juvenile detention center, and suspended from school for 3 days.[13] The incident was rebuked by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and the boy’s mother for the school’s unnecessary reliance on law enforcement and violation of the student’s First Amendment rights.[14] Under West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 63 S. Ct. 1178 (1943),[15] schools cannot legally require students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.[16] Accordingly, the school district made a statement that it did not condone the substitute teacher’s behavior and no longer employed her in the district.[17]

School-based arrests are undoubtedly the quickest route down the pipeline into the criminal justice system.[18] Additionally, suspensions can lead to long-term detrimental effects as well. For starters, “even a single suspension can double the odds of that student later dropping out” of school.[19] Missing days of class impedes learning and decreases the chances of students completing high school and entering higher education.[20] Furthermore, some jurisdictions’ overuse of “disciplinary alternative schools” for problematic students similarly funnel students into the juvenile justice system.[21] Once in the system, it is difficult for students to return to traditional schools and eventually obtain a high school diploma.[22]

Fortunately, agencies at both the state and federal level continue to battle the school-to-prison pipeline. This year, the Arizona Department of Education “allocated new grant money so schools can apply for funding to pay counselors, social workers and school resource officers . . . .”[23] Students themselves are urging schools to use the funding to hire counselors and behavioral health professionals rather than SROs to help combat Arizona’s high “teen suicide and dropout rates” and the “worst student-to-counselor ratio in the nation.” [24] California recently implemented legislation against the pipeline as well, prohibiting the suspension of “students in elementary and middle school for disrupting school activities or ‘willfully defying’ the authority of administrators.”[25]

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice “jointly issued federal guidelines to advise schools on how to improve school climate and discipline.”[26] Also in 2014, President Barack Obama launched the initiative “My Brother’s Keeper” broadly aimed at improving the lives of young men of color and stopping the school-to-prison pipeline.[27]  The Obama administration also issued guidance “that put schools on notice that they may be found in violation of federal civil rights laws if their discipline policies and practices disproportionately affect students in one racial group.” [28] Although the Trump administration recently withdrew this guidance, current 2020 Democratic presidential candidates such as Elizabeth Warren[29] and Beto O’Rourke[30]  have voiced intentions to continue fighting pipeline.


[1] Susan Ferriss, ‘School to Prison Pipeline’ Hit on Capitol Hill, The Center for Public Integrity (Dec. 13, 2012),

[2] Id.

[3]Mariya Mosley, This Fierce Afro-Latina is Fighting to Close the School to Prison Pipeline, Essence (Apr. 27, 2017),

[4] Artika R. Tyner, The Emergence of the School-to-Prison Pipeline, American Bar Association (Aug. 15, 2017),

[5] Ferriss, supra note 1.

[6] School-to-Prison Pipeline, American Civil Liberties Union,

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Tyner, supra note 4.

[10] American Liberties Union Civil, supra note 6.

[11] Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline for Students with Disabilities, National Council on Disability (June 18, 2015,)

[12] Kristine Phillips, Florida Sixth-Grader Arreseted after Dispute with Teacher over Pledge of Allegiance, The Washington Post (February 18, 2019),

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624, 63 S. Ct. 1178 (1943)

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] American Civil Liberties Union, supra note 6.

[19] Tyner, supra note 4.

[20] Id.

[21] American Civil Liberties Union, supra note 6.

[22] Id.

[23] Students and Volunteers with Demand to Learn, Student Perspective: Here’s Why Counselors on Campus are Important, American Civil Liberties Union (Sept. 10, 2019),

[24] Id.

[25] Nina Agrawal, California Expands Ban on ‘Willful Defiance’ Suspensions in Schools, Los Angeles Times (Sept. 10, 2019, 1:10 PM),

[26] American Civil Liberties Union, supra note 6.

[27] Christi Parsons, Obama Wants to Stop ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’ for Minorities, Los Angeles Times (Feb. 11, 2014, 3:00 PM),

[28] Evie Blad, Segregation, ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’ Fire Up Democratic Debate, Education Week (July 31, 2019, 11:30 PM),

[29] S.A. Miller, Elizabeth Warren’s Criminal Justice Plan Targets ‘Officer Abuses,’ ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’, The Washington Times (Aug. 20, 2019),

[30] Joseph D. Lyons, Beto O’Rourke Tackled the School-to-Prison Pipeline & Isn’t Backing Down on Pot Decriminalization, Bustle (Aug. 29, 2018),