August 03, 2015

The School-to-Prison Pipeline

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

When I first heard of the school-to-prison pipeline I thought that it was some sort of exaggeration. How could it be possible, I wondered, for schools to be a direct path to prison? It doesn’t make any sense that primary and secondary schools are serving as the conduits that fill the cells of penal institutions. Unfortunately, this pipeline not only exists and it is not just a mere trickle; it is a strong flowing and steady stream. Every year, thousands of young people experience a direct path from school to juvenile detention centers and then ultimately to prison.


According to the National Educators Association (NEA), the school-to-prison pipeline is best understood as, “The practice of pushing kids out of school and toward the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” Increasingly, schools are suspending and expelling students for relatively minor infractions. In the past, these kids would get sent to the principal’s office or have after-school detention; however, these days, students are being kicked out of school and sometimes even arrested. With school out of the equation for these youngsters, the likelihood that they will end up in the juvenile justice system increases dramatically.                 



The majority of students who fall victim to the school-to-prison pipeline are students of color and students with disabilities. A nationwide study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education found that “African-American students are 3.5 times more likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled. Black children constitute 18 percent of students, but they account for 46 percent of those suspended more than once.”

Students with disabilities are also disproportionately represented: “One report found that while 8.6 percent of public school children have been identified as having disabilities that affect their ability to learn, these students make up 32 percent of youth in juvenile detention centers.”

Social class also plays a significant role. Besides the obvious intersections between race and class, in which Black and Latino students are more likely to be from low-income  backgrounds, there are structural inequalities based on family wealth that result in drastically different experiences in school and in the criminal justice system. Recent research by sociologist David Ramey found that “schools and districts with relatively larger minority and poor populations are more likely to implement criminalized disciplinary policies” instead of using less punitive interventions.

And once students are funneled into the criminal justice system, the way in which they are handled is different based on their race and class. According to law professor Tamar Birckhead, this process is best referred to as “delinquent by reason of poverty” because of “the disproportionate representation of low-income children in the United States juvenile justice system.” In effect, “children from low-income homes do not have to be as ‘guilty’ as those from families of means in order to enter and remain in the [criminal justice] system.”

Although there is some debate as to what has caused schools to become a direct channel for prison, most researchers point to the zero tolerance policies that were implemented in the 1990s as a means to stem the increase in gang violence and school shootings. These policies hand out predetermined severe punishments to students who break school rules, even if the infraction was an accident or based on ignorance. But as sociologist Nancy A. Heitzeg points out, while these policies have done little to make schools safer they have had deleterious effects on the lives of students, mostly students of color, who are victims of these punitive measures.

Because these zero tolerance policies are implemented differently in low-income schools of color than in wealthier white schools, they have created two separate tracks to adulthood. In her recent Ted Talk, sociologist Alice Goffman summarizes this life-course inequality by pointing out how we are “priming some kids for college – and others for prison.” Another way to say this is that more than 100 years after Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the doctrine of separate but equal, and sixty years after Brown v. the Board of Education declared separate but equal unconstitutional, we have now regressed to a point of separate and unequal.

While the direct victims of the school-to-prison pipeline are largely low-income students of color who get caught in this dragnet, all of us bear the brunt of these practices. Consider, for example, that the nationwide average per-pupil spending for public schools in the United States was $10,608 annually in 2012.  By comparison, the cost of incarcerating a young person can be as high as $148,767 per year. In other words, we are paying nearly fifteen times the amount of money to keep kids in jail than we are to keep them engaged and excited about school. Economically, this is an irrational and shortsighted use of taxpayer money; socially, this is a policy that is decimating and disrupting communities all across the United States.

Here is a more specific example that highlights the problem: Last year, the Chicago Public School (CPS) system budgeted $56,303,794 for school security personnel. This amount was in addition to the $47,000,000 CPS budgeted for security officers, metal detectors, and surveillance cameras. Taken together, that’s over $100 million allocated to policing and security in the schools. In that same year, CPS spent just $24 million for psychological services personnel. For students in the Chicago Public School system the message is quite clear: the money and resources exist to police you when you get into trouble but not to counsel you to stay out of trouble.

Like any social problem, the school-to-prison pipeline requires social solutions. It is not enough to expect individuals to change their behaviors; the issue is structural and institutional and therefore requires structural and institutional changes. These changes must occur within schools, the criminal justice system (including laws), communities, families, and even the media. And such changes are occurring. Organizations such as Models for Change, Advancement Project, NEA, Juvenile Law Center, and Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, are leading the fight to ensure that schools are preparing kids for a promising adulthood instead of an adulthood in prison.  

If you are interested in putting your sociological knowledge to work, get involved with one of these organizations or a group in your local community to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline. 


Unfortunately the school-to-prison thing is far too common

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