Combatting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

The School-to-Prison Prison Pipeline is a national trend where students are channeled out of public schools and into juvenile and criminal justice systems. This is happening at alarming and growing rates. Many of these students are of color, have a learning disability or mental illness, or live in poverty. The pipeline is also referred to as the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track and the cradle-to-prison track as children are becoming involved at alarmingly younger ages.

A national problem that deserves federal action

- Matthew Cregor an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund


How Did We Get Here?


There are a number of factors that have led to the progression of the pipeline. Many scholars trace the very beginnings of this trend to the implementation of Zero-Tolerance policies. These policies started when federal law mandated schools to penalize students for bring weapons or drugs into schools. However, it has grown to include non-violent offenses that present no immediate harm to other students, teachers or administrators. Zero-Tolerance policies often “criminalize minor infractions of school rules” (ACLU). According to a survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, 57% of schools have some sort of police presence. This is a 42% increase in ten years. As a result of police presence in schools, students are more likely to be criminalized for behaviors that should be handled by the school. Their presence leads to more school-based arrests, the majority of which are for non-violent offenses. These policies automatically infringe harsh punishment regardless of circumstances, including suspension and expulsion. This lack of due process is a problem because suspended and expelled children are often left unsupervised and can fall behind in school. This can lead to increased court involvement, and students entering the system at a young age.


Another major concern that has taken rise in the pipeline is the inadequate resources in public schools. Overcrowded classrooms are the norm, schools struggle to find qualified teachers, and there is a lack of funding for things like counselors, special education, textbooks, etc. Without these resources, public schools are failing to meet the educational needs of students. And failing to meet the needs of our kids increases disengagement and dropout rates among the student population. As a result of the inadequate resources, in an effort to get more funding, schools are being pressured to push out low-performing kids. Often these low performing kids are at higher risk to be another statistic in the school to prison pipeline.


The low performing kids may also be sent into Disciplinary Alternative Schools. These schools, though, have very little accountability, especially when it comes to the curriculum standards and minimum classroom hours. Students who find themselves in these schools can find themselves returning to a traditional classroom completely unprepared, and, then, disengaged. The students who stay, though, are no better off. They continue to receive a poor education with a higher risk of being funneled through the juvenile justice system, with even more obstacles standing between them and their re-entry into traditional schools.


Who is at risk?


The potential for entering the pipeline is NOT random→ the pipeline disproportionately affects the poor, students with disabilities or mental illness, and youth of color- especially African Americans


“Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect, would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished, and pushed out.” -American Civil Liberties Union


Students of color

-Black children make up 18% of students, but they account for 46% of those suspended more than once

-Minnesota Department of Education- school year 2007-2008: African American students represented less than 10% of the student body, yet their suspension rate represented almost half the total number of suspensions

-African American students- 3.5 times more likely than their white classmates to be suspended/expelled

-African American students in general, along with multiracial female students, were more likely to receive referrals to the school disciplinarian

Students with learning disabilities and or mental illness

-8.6% of public school children have been identified as having disabilities that affect their ability to learn → these students make up 32% of youth in juvenile detention centers

-Students with special needs are disproportionately represented in the pipeline despite the heightened protections afforded to them under law

-Studies show that up to 85% of youth in juvenile detention facilities have mental health and/or learning disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, yet only 37% receive these services while in school

-Intersectionality: the theory that the overlap of various social identities, as race, gender,sexuality, and class, contributes to the specific type of systemic oppression and discrimination experienced by an individual

-race & ability: about 1 in 4 black children with disabilities were suspended at least once vs. 1 in 11 white students

Students living in poverty

Students with history of abuse/neglect




























How Do We Change It?


Many educators are working tirelessly to make the reality of the pipeline less severe. The end goal, obviously is to be rid of it completely. One of the most important things that needs to be done in order to see reform in public education is revision of the curriculum. As educators, we have to bring the pipeline into the light. Rethinking schools says that “the school-to-prison pipeline is really a classroom-to-prison pipeline. A student’s trajectory to a criminalized life often begins with a curriculum that disrespects children’s lives and that does not center on things that matter” (Rethinking Schools, 2012). Curriculum needs to be relevant and engaging for students in order to keep them in schools and out of the system. Social Justice Education needs to be at the forefront of our curricular focus moving forward in an effort to promote equality in all education.


While curriculum needs revision, Zero-Tolerance policies have to be eliminated. Schools should be equipped to handle behavior that does not present a violent threat to the safety of students, teachers or administrators. Rethinking Schools believes that “Creating alternative approaches to safe school communities that rely on restorative justice and community building instead of criminalization” should be the most important focus of public schools right now (Rethinking Schools, 2012).


Alternative discipline is another way that schools are combatting the pipeline. There are two popular programs right now. One is the On-Campus Intervention Program (OCIP). The OCIP offers counseling and support services to students in hopes to encourage and aid them in addressing and modifying behaviors. They do so by giving students the opportunity to learn from mistakes and really focus on the development of the child. The other program in called Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline. The primary goal of this kind of discipline is to have teachers and students collaborate to set classroom behaviors, as well as an emphasis on rewarding positive behavior.


Dr. Tyner, with the American Bar Association, has a few recommendations for change. She advises schools to develop clear, appropriate and consistent expectations and consequences to address disruptive behavior. Consistency is the most important thing when it comes discipline in the classroom and the school at large. She also suggests striving for fairness, equity and continuous improvement as changes are made in your school’s system.


In 2013, Teaching Tolerance magazine released six practices they believed would help schools avoid the pipeline:

1. Increase the use of positive behavior interventions and supports.

2. Compile annual reports on the total number of disciplinary actions that push students out of the classroom based on gender, race and ability.

3. Create agreements with police departments and court systems to limit arrests at school and the use of restraints, such as mace and handcuffs.

4. Provide simple explanations of infractions and prescribed responses in the student code of conduct to ensure fairness.

5. Create appropriate limits on the use of law enforcement in public schools.

6. Train teachers on the use of positive behavior supports for at-risk students.

It is clear that each of these suggestions is directly related to factors that are believed to continue the pipeline rather than end it. Awareness is the first step in bringing change.





a segment from the poem Humanizing the Pipeline Through Poetry by: Karen Myers


School starts tomorrow

I can’t wait

I get to go first

So I can teach

Everything I learn to my sister


How can a child

Who was that excited

About starting school

Dislike it so quickly


I wish I didn’t

Have to go to school

I’m always getting into trouble

With my teacher

She never asks what happened

She just gives me that look

And sends me to the corner

Or the hall

Or the principal’s office


I can’t believe it’s come to this

I can learn

If you teach me

I remember not so long ago

When I wanted to learn Everything I could

To teach my little sister

I wanted to learn

Everything I could

So I could go to college

And get a good job

To make my mama proud

And help her with her bills

Now I just make things worse I’m starting to believe

What they say about me

Maybe I deserve “juvie”

Like my uncle got

Even though I can’t say

I’ve ever wanted to

Hurt someone

I just want to be left alone

So I can learn

But no one ever asks me

What I want




Resources (and for further study):


Rethinking Schools, 2012. Rethinking Schools is a national publisher of many educational resources. They are dedicated to emphasizing the problems that face urban schools, with a focus on race. They believe in the importance of school and a good education. The publish a magazine and blog with the hopes to reach as many educators as possible and to equip them with the tools they need to successfully educate their students.

Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, 2017. With a focus on the exchange of ideas, the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange is trying to foster a community of support around the issues that are surrounding the youth of America.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ttps://

The American Bar Association,

Teaching Tolerance Magazine, 2013.

Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping, 2017.,url,uid,cpid&custid=s9002934&db=sih&AN=127194653&site=eds-live&scope=site




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