Understanding the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Full Length of Man Sitting on Seat at Prison

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The school-to-prison pipeline is a process through which students are pushed out of schools and into prisons. In other words, it is a process of criminalizing youth that is carried out by disciplinary policies and practices within schools that put students into contact with law enforcement. Once they are put into contact with law enforcement for disciplinary reasons, many are then pushed out of the educational environment and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

The key policies and practices that created and now maintain the school-to-prison pipeline include zero tolerance policies that mandate harsh punishments for both minor and major infractions, exclusion of students from schools through punitive suspensions and expulsions, and the presence of police on campus as school resource officers (SROs).

The school-to-prison pipeline is supported by budgetary decisions made by the U.S. government. From 1987-2007, funding for incarceration more than doubled while funding for higher education was raised by just 21%, according to PBS. In addition, evidence shows that the school-to-prison pipeline primarily captures and affects Black students, which mirrors the over-representation of this group in America's prisons and jails.

How It Works

The two key forces that produced and now maintain the school-to-prison pipeline are the use of zero tolerance policies that mandate exclusionary punishments and the presence of SROs on campuses. These policies and practices became common following a deadly spate of school shootings across the U.S. in the 1990s. Lawmakers and educators believed they would help to ensure safety on school campuses.

Having a zero tolerance policy means that a school has zero tolerance for any kind of misbehavior or violation of school rules, no matter how minor, unintentional, or subjectively defined it may be. In a school with a zero tolerance policy, suspensions and expulsions are normal and common ways of dealing with student misbehavior.

Impact of Zero Tolerance Policies

Research shows that the implementation of zero tolerance policies has led to significant increases in suspensions and expulsions. Citing a study by Michie, education scholar Henry Giroux observed that, over a four-year period, suspensions increased by 51% and expulsions by nearly 32 times after zero tolerance policies were implemented in Chicago schools. They jumped from just 21 expulsions in the 1994–95 school year to 668 in 1997–98. Similarly, Giroux cites a report from the Denver Rocky Mountain News that found that expulsions increased by more than 300% in the city's public schools between 1993 and 1997.

Once suspended or expelled, data show that students are less likely to complete high school, more than twice as likely to be arrested while on forced leave from school, and more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system during the year that follows the leave. In fact, sociologist David Ramey found, in a nationally representative study, that experiencing school punishment before the age of 15 is associated with contact with the criminal justice system for boys. Other research shows that students who do not complete high school are more likely to be incarcerated.

How SROs Facilitate the Pipeline

In addition to adopting harsh zero tolerance policies, most schools across the country now have police present on campus on a daily basis and most states require educators to report student misbehavior to law enforcement. The presence of SROs on campus means that students have contact with law enforcement from a young age. Though their intended purpose is to protect students and ensure safety on school campuses, in many instances, the police handling of disciplinary issues escalates minor, non-violent infractions into violent, criminal incidents that have negative impacts on students.

By studying the distribution of federal funding for SROs and rates of school-related arrests, criminologist Emily G. Owens found that the presence of SROs on campus causes law enforcement agencies to learn of more crimes and increases the likelihood of arrest for those crimes among children under the age of 15.

Christopher A. Mallett, a legal scholar and expert on the school-to-prison pipeline, reviewed evidence of the pipeline's existence and concluded that "the increased use of zero tolerance policies and police...in the schools has exponentially increased arrests and referrals to the juvenile courts." Once they have made contact with the criminal justice system, data show that students are unlikely to graduate high school.

Overall, what over a decade of empirical research on this topic proves is that zero tolerance policies, punitive disciplinary measures like suspensions and expulsions, and the presence of SROs on campus have led to more students being pushed out of schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. In short, these policies and practices created the school-to-prison pipeline and sustain it today.

But why exactly do these policies and practices make students more likely to commit crimes and end up in prison? Sociological theories and research help answer this question.

Institutions and Authority Figures Criminalize Students

One key sociological theory of deviance, known as labeling theory, contends that people come to identify and behave in ways that reflect how others label them. Applying this theory to the school-to-prison pipeline suggests that being labeled as a "bad" kid by school authorities or SROs, and being treated in a way that reflects that label (punitively), ultimately leads kids to internalize the label and behave in ways that make it real through action. In other words, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sociologist Victor Rios found just that in his studies of the effects of policing on the lives of Black and Latinx boys in the San Francisco Bay Area. In his first book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys, Rios revealed through in-depth interviews and ethnographic observation how increased surveillance and attempts at controlling "at-risk" or deviant youth ultimately foster the very criminal behavior they are intended to prevent. In a social context in which social institutions label deviant youth as bad or criminal, and in doing so, strip them of dignity, fail to acknowledge their struggles, and do not treat them with respect, rebellion and criminality are acts of resistance. According to Rios, then, it is social institutions and their authorities that do the work of criminalizing youth.

Exclusion from School, Socialization Into Crime

The sociological concept of socialization also helps shed light on why the school-to-prison pipeline exists. After family, school is the second most important and formative site of socialization for children and adolescents where they learn social norms for behavior and interaction and receive moral guidance from authority figures. Removing students from schools as a form of discipline takes them out of this formative environment and important process, and it removes them from the safety and structure that the school provides. Many students who express behavioral issues at school are acting out in response to stressful or dangerous conditions in their homes or neighborhoods, so removing them from school and returning them to a problematic or unsupervised home environment hurts rather than helps their development.

While removed from school during a suspension or expulsion, youth are more likely to spend time with others removed for similar reasons, and with those who are already engaged in criminal activity. Rather than being socialized by education-focused peers and educators, students who have been suspended or expelled will be socialized more by peers in similar situations. Because of these factors, the punishment of removal from school creates the conditions for the development of criminal behavior.

Harsh Punishment

Further, treating students as criminals when they have done nothing more than act out in minor, non-violent ways weakens the authority of educators, police, and other members of the juvenile and criminal justice sectors. The punishment does not fit the crime and so it suggests that those in positions of authority are not trustworthy, fair, and are even immoral. Seeking to do the opposite, authority figures who behave this way can actually teach students that they and their authority are not to be respected or trusted, which fosters conflict between them and students. This conflict then often leads to further exclusionary and damaging punishment experienced by students.

The Stigma of Exclusion

Finally, once excluded from school and labeled bad or criminal, students often find themselves stigmatized by their teachers, parents, friends, parents of friends, and other community members. They experience confusion, stress, depression, and anger as a result of being excluded from school and from being treated harshly and unfairly by those in charge. This makes it difficult to stay focused on school and hinders motivation to study and desire to return to school and to succeed academically.

Cumulatively, these social forces work to discourage academic studies, hinder academic achievement and even completion of high school, and push negatively labeled youth onto criminal paths and into the criminal justice system.

Black and Indigenous Students Face Harsher Punishments and Higher Rates of Suspension and Expulsion

While Black people are just 13% of the total U.S. population, they comprise the greatest percentage of people in prisons and jails—40%. Latinxs are also over-represented in prisons and jails, but by far less. While they comprise 16% of the U.S. population they represent 19% of those in prisons and jails. In contrast, White people make up just 39% of the incarcerated population, despite the fact that they are the majority race in the U.S., comprising 64% of the national population.

Data from across the U.S. that illustrate punishment and school-related arrests show that the racial disparity in incarceration begins with the school-to-prison pipeline. Research shows that both schools with large Black populations and underfunded schools, many of which are majority-minority schools, are more likely to employ zero tolerance policies. Nationwide, Black and Indigenous students face far greater rates of suspension and expulsion than do White students. In addition, data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics show that while the percentage of White students suspended fell from 1999 to 2007, the percentage of Black and Hispanic students suspended rose.

A variety of studies and metrics show that Black and Indigenous students are punished more frequently and more harshly for the same, mostly minor, offenses than are White students. Legal and educational scholar Daniel J. Losen points out that, though there is no evidence that these students misbehave more frequently or more severely than do White students, research from across the country shows that teachers and administrators punish them more—especially Black students. Losen cites one study that found that the disparity is greatest among non-serious offenses like cell phone use, violations of dress code, or subjectively defined offenses like being disruptive or displaying affection. Black first-time offenders in these categories are suspended at rates that are double or more than those for White first-time offenders.

According to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, about 5% of White students have been suspended during their schooling experience, compared with 16% of Black students. This means Black students are more than three times as likely to be suspended than their White peers. Though they comprise just 16% of the total enrollment of public school students, Black students comprise 32% of in-school suspensions and 33% of out-of-school suspensions. Troublingly, this disparity begins as early as preschool. Nearly half of all preschool students suspended are Black, though they represent just 18% of total preschool enrollment. Indigenous students also face inflated suspension rates. They represent 2% of out-of-school suspensions, which is four times greater than the percentage of total enrolled students that they comprise.

Black students are also far more likely to experience multiple suspensions. Though they are just 16% of the public school enrollment, they are a full 42% of those suspended multiple times. This means that their presence in the population of students with multiple suspensions is more than 2.6 times greater than their presence in the total population of students. Meanwhile, White students are under-represented among those with multiple suspensions, at just 31%. These disparate rates play out not only within schools but also across districts on the basis of race. Data shows that in the Midlands area of South Carolina, suspension figures in a mostly-Black school district are double what they are in a mostly-White one.

There is also evidence that shows that the overly harsh punishment of Black students is concentrated in the American South, where the legacy of human enslavement and Jim Crow exclusionary policies and violence against Black people manifest in everyday life. Of the 1.2 million Black students who were suspended nationwide during the 2011-2012 school year, more than half were located in 13 Southern states. At the same time, half of all Black students expelled were from these states. In many of the school districts located in there, Black students comprised 100% of students suspended or expelled in a given school year.

Among this population, students with disabilities are even more likely to experience exclusionary discipline. With the exception of Asian and Latinx students, research shows that "more than one out of four boys of color with disabilities... and nearly one in five girls of color with disabilities receives an out-of-school suspension." Meanwhile, research shows that White students who express behavioral issues in school are more likely to be treated with medicine, which reduces their chances of ending up in jail or prison after acting out in school.

Black Students Face Higher Rates of School-Related Arrests and Removal From School System

Given that there is a connection between the experience of suspensions and engagement with the criminal justice system, and given that racial bias within education and among police is well-documented, it is no surprise that Black and Latinx students comprise 70% of those who face referral to law enforcement or school-related arrests.

Once they are in contact with the criminal justice system, as the statistics on the school-to-prison pipeline cited above demonstrate, students are far less likely to complete high school. Those that do may do so in "alternative schools" for students labeled as "juvenile delinquents," many of which are unaccredited and offer lower quality education than they would receive in public schools. Others who are placed in juvenile detention centers or prison may receive no educational resources at all.

The racism embedded in the school-to-prison pipeline is a significant factor in producing the reality that Black and Latinx students are far less likely than their White peers to complete high school and that Black, Latinx, and American Indigenous people are much more likely than White people to end up in jail or prison.

What all of these data show us is that not only is the school-to-prison pipeline very real, but also, it is fueled by racial bias and produces racist outcomes that cause great harm to the lives, families, and communities of people of color across the United States.

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Your Citation
Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Understanding the School-to-Prison Pipeline." ThoughtCo, Aug. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/school-to-prison-pipeline-4136170. Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. (2021, August 1). Understanding the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/school-to-prison-pipeline-4136170 Cole, Nicki Lisa, Ph.D. "Understanding the School-to-Prison Pipeline." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/school-to-prison-pipeline-4136170 (accessed October 18, 2021).