The School to Prison Pipeline

By Allison Gloss

In the wake of recent protests over police brutality, public conversation has turned to systemic racial biases in law enforcement. However, this racial disparity does not begin and end with the police. This systemic inequitable treatment begins early, to children of color in the school system. The “school-to-prison pipeline” is a term for the national trend in the United States of schools funneling students into the criminal justice system. Many of the students who are taking the brunt of this development are students of color, students with learning disabilities, or those experiencing poverty and other marginalization.

Beginning in the 1970’s, the United States federal government implemented “tough-on-crime” policies in response to high rates of violent crime. During this period criminal codes became stricter, penalties became more punitive, and the rate of incarceration skyrocketed. Over time, these strict disciplinary policies worked their way into the American school system. In response to a handful of widely publicized school shootings, President Clinton signed the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 into law which was intended to prevent students from bringing weapons onto campus. Some school districts had already begun stringently prohibiting conduct related to guns and drugs. In addition to these prohibitions against drugs and guns, schools began cracking down on lesser violations such as talking back to the teachers or dress code violations. These rules against minor offenses were implemented in the hopes that quelling small issues would prevent larger issues from rising. These policies typically resulted in students receiving an out of school suspension or expulsion.

In an effort to enforce these new policies, schools began employing the help of the actual police as School Resource Officers (SRO’s). Schools with these SRO’s reported five times as many arrests of students for disorderly conduct than schools without them. Having these officers on school campuses allows administrations to outsource the disciplining of their students. However, this can be very detrimental for students of color or those with disabilities who are already more at risk to be arrested by the police.

All of these ardent measures taken by schools disproportionately affect students from marginalized communities and direct them right into the juvenile justice system. Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times more frequently than white students. Suspended children can quickly fall behind in their coursework leading to a greater likelihood of disengagement and drop-outs, all factors which increase the likelihood of court involvement later on in life. In 2010, a study was done that showed a positive correlation of the punitiveness of a school’s disciplinary policies and the percentage of their black student population. Although black students were punished at a higher rate in these schools, there was no correlation to the student’s actual rate of juvenile delinquency or drug use. These students are also being punished at a higher rate for subjective offenses such as “insubordination” or “willful defiance.”

Some schools have made an attempt to counteract this disturbing trend by implementing practices such as “restorative justice.” An example of restorative justice would be having two students who were engaged in a conflict talk out their differences with the help and supervision of a guidance counselor. These practices proactively build healthy relationships and a sense of community in schools rather than outsourcing disciplinary measures to the criminal justice system. Further, these restorative justice programs give students an opportunity to resolve problems on their own, which helps them develop critical thinking, social, and emotional skills.

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