• Ashlee Knox

The Grim Reality of the "School To Prison Pipeline"

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

As activists and politicians begin critically examining America’s police system one area of conversation is criminally ignored. The “school to prison pipeline” is a deranged system that has resulted in the funneling of primarily Black students and students with disabilities into juvenile prisons. This pipeline is not a coincidence, but rather a persistent phenomenon crafted by legislation used to “discipline” misbehaving students. As a country citizens must ask themselves if the increasing incarceration of Black and Brown students during high school can be justified by any means.

What is the “School to Prison Pipeline”? And Who Does it Affect?

The school to prison pipeline is defined as “a process of criminalizing youth that is carried out by disciplinary policies and practices within schools that put students into contact with law enforcement.” Key components of this process include schools adopting “zero tolerance” policies, the expulsion of students either out of the educational system or into alternative schooling, and the presence of police on campus. The result of these policies is a system where children are forced out of school and pushed into a life of crime or delinquency resulting in their eventual incarceration.

Data shows that Black children while only making up 18% of the country’s school system represent 46% of students suspended more than once. This is further confirmed by the statistic that Black children are nearly 4 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. Possibly even more concerning, children with disabilities “ranging from an emotional disability like bipolar disorder to learning disabilities like dyslexia” represent 1 out of 3 students involved in juvenile justice systems such as youth correctional facilities. Even worse, 1 out of 4 Black students with disabilities are suspended at least once compared to 1 out of 11 white students with the same disabilities. Overall the trend is consistent Black children, children with disabilities, and Black children with disabilities are disproportionately harmed by this system.

The Reign of “Zero Tolerance” Policies

Zero-tolerance policies are frequently shown to increase the number of suspensions and expulsions as intended, but the real issue is who are they suspending? These policies greatly contribute to the school to prison pipeline by encouraging administrators to have no mercy on students when committing even minor infractions. Zero-tolerance policies were originally coined after the “Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994” was created and schools receiving federal funds were required by law to expel any student who brought a firearm to school for at least one year. Although this law has reduced the amount of gun violence or students carrying firearms at K-12 schools, the legislation has yielded a certain attitude amongst schools. Policies that were created to stop students from bringing weapons to school have now morphed into policies that suspend, expel, and arrest students for the most minor of issues. This often includes using profanity against a teacher, being consistently out of dress code, or bringing over the counter medications such as Aspirin to schools without the express permission of a doctor. Data shows that students that are suspended or expelled from school face serious consequences that can be often life-changing for the worst. Students in Washington state who faced suspension/expulsion are 2x more likely to repeat a grade and at least 2x more likely to drop out of school depending on the number of times they’ve been disciplined. It is also understood in America that students who drop out of school are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested and 8x more likely to be incarcerated than high school graduates. The pipeline makes itself very obvious to anyone who looks deep enough. Minority children and children with disabilities are suspended more, forced to drop out more, and then funneled into the prison system at an increased rate. If the data is consistent that some groups of children are disproportionately punished by zero-tolerance policies and that suspensions have a possibly lifelong negative effect, then why are these policies still favored by K-12 schools across America? Activists and educators are asking the same question.

Does Police Presence on Campus Do More Harm Than Good?

Police are present at K-12 schools across America for the intended purpose of reducing violence, drugs, and mass shootings at campuses, but research shows that there may be some serious consequences to their involvement in schools. In a national study conducted by the University of California Irvine in 2017, researchers found that arrest rates of children dramatically increased after the hiring of police officers following the year 1999. In another study, data shows that the hiring of school officers in Texas led to a 6% increase in disciplinary actions such as suspensions for middle school students. This same study found that Black students were primarily affected by this and the vast majority of disciplinary actions followed a minor offense such as the aforementioned violations. Although these are just a few pieces of research showing that police officers on campus do increase the number of arrests and suspensions, there have also been multiple viral incidents of police in schools using excessive force. For example, there was an incident in North Carolina in 2019 where a school resource officer body-slammed an 11-year-old boy twice despite him not resisting. In the same year a school officer in New Mexico used excessive force while wrestling with an 11-year-old girl. These incidents are in no way isolated as almost every state has multiple records of police in school using excessive force on children of all ages. While police presence has been shown to slightly reduce violent crime rates in schools, it is impossible to ignore the extensive negative consequences of employing school officers.


Based on the research it is difficult to deny the existence of the school to prison pipeline that primarily affects students of color and those with disabilities. While activists have started calling for the removal of police officers from K-12 schools following recent social unrest over police brutality, few have addressed the use of zero-tolerance policies. Although this is a currently difficult time for the U.S this is also the perfect time to start examining the biases in our education and school system. The biases and the perpetrators of those biases in our schools must be dismantled if we are to make any genuine progress towards a more unified or fair America.

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