The term "school-to-prison pipeline" is a phrase that is used by education reform activists and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Justice Policy Center, Advancement Project, and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) to describe what they view as a widespread pattern in the United States of pushing students, especially those who are already at a disadvantage, out of school and into the American criminal justice system. They argue that this "pipeline" is the result of public institutions neglecting to properly address students as individuals who might need extra educational or social assistance, or being unable to do so because of staffing shortages or statutory mandates. The resulting miseducation and mass incarceration are said to create a vicious circle for individuals and communities.
The school-to-prison pipeline is understood to operate at all levels of US government (federal, state, county, city and school district), and both directly and indirectly.
Educational researcher Christine Christle and her colleagues have determined that school-level practices correlate to delinquency and incarceration. These practices include searches of students, strict rules outlined in the school handbook and code of student conduct, excessive policing at schools, and high-stakes testing that slates students for failure, grade retention, and dropping out of school.
Zero-tolerance disciplinary policies are often the first step in a child’s journey through the pipeline. Zero-tolerance policies impose severe discipline on students without regard to individual circumstances. The American Bar Association has been critical of these policies, calling them a "one-size-fits-all solution" that "has redefined students as criminals."
A study by the National Education Policy Center found that zero-tolerance policies across the nation were increasing suspension rates, particularly for black and Latino students accused of non-violent offenses such as dress code violations, cell phone use, attendance/truancy, and insubordination. They found that zero-tolerance policies put children on a path of truancy and likely incarceration.
According to the ACLU, schools rely on poorly trained police, rather than teachers and administrators, to handle minor school misconduct. The reality is that public schools have in the last 15 years undergone mass changes in school security policies. Video surveillance, drug-sniffing dogs, and sworn-in security officers are now commonplace fixtures in most public schools in the United States. Scholars argue that this increase in security measures is a result of rising fears about violence in schools. One highly publicized example is the 1999 Columbine High School Shooting. The irony of the increase in security after the Columbine Shooting is that armed police officers were stationed at the Columbine High School at the time of the massacre yet were not able to stop it. Now that police are more present in public schools the line between disciplining under a schools' general policy standards versus disciplining by law enforcement standards is getting blurred.
A 2012 school "lockdown" in Casa Grande, Arizona, included employees of the private Corrections Corporation of America company—unusual participants in a government policing action. Caroline Isaacs of the Tucson American Friends Service Committee said of the event: "To invite for-profit prison guards to conduct law enforcement actions in a high school is perhaps the most direct expression of the 'schools-to-prison pipeline' I've ever seen." 
The ACLU also contends that resources that could be put towards improving under-resourced schools are instead used for security, despite the fact that these very schools are the ones lacking basic educational resources like textbooks and libraries.
Students with lower test scores receive worse punishments for rule-breaking than their counterparts at others schools. This trend parallels and includes sentencing disparities in the "War On Drugs."
More and more schools are being sanctioned for poor performance under the No Child Left Behind Act; as a result, teachers in these schools must bend to the standardized tests that are used for evaluations. Opponents of these tests argue that they undermine teachers and students, that they take up too much time, and that they promote rote memorization rather than critical thinking.
Minority students are disproportionately subject to exit examinations that determine whether they can graduate from high school. These same students are likely to be in schools that have less funding and larger class sizes. Furthermore, their schools are often suffering—due to being punished for low test scores.
Another facet of the school-to-prison pipeline involves overlapping patterns of institutional structure. These include disciplinary and bureaucratic practices for storing human beings in buildings, as well as institutional culture that degrades the people affected. A simple but widespread example of this culture is the division of students into "good kids" and "bad kids," which paves the way for the promotion of some and the abandonment of others (often resulting in identification with 'badness').
Michel Foucault, in his 1975 Discipline and Punish, suggested that different institutions had gradually become an extension of the prisons, resulting in a "carceral system" that now regulates much of society.
Critiques of the school-to-prison pipeline attempt to show how it falls into larger systems of domination such as racism, ableism, and capitalism. An unfair distribution of educational resources make students less likely to learn, less likely to find good jobs, and more likely to end up in prison. The more people in disadvantaged communities that go to prison, the more alienated and economically disadvantaged these communities become.
The pipeline can also be critiqued in terms of neoliberalism, the idea that market forces can organize every facet of society. Because prisons can be privatized and run for profit, and traditional public schools cannot, the market favors sending people to prisons rather than schools—particularly if they are not destined to become part of the high-skilled workforce. (As prisoners, people can be compelled to perform labor anyway.) In keeping with this system, school budgets have shrunk while prison budgets have expanded massively, while even within schools more funding goes to police and less to teachers and children. The feedback loop between standardized testing and school funding is another facet of neoliberalism, creating competition between students and teachers who need good test scores to keep their jobs.
Because neoliberalism does leave out a large and arguably expanding section of the global population, it creates disenfranchised people that it needs to control. A criminal justice system dedicated to controlling and arresting members of poorer populations is a necessary counterpart to the "free market" policies that constitute neoliberalism's public face.
An article published in the New Jersey Law Journal, reacting to the ABA's opposition of zero-tolerance policies, argued that even with these rules in effect, schools had enough flexibility to determine whether a student ought to stay in school. Supporters believe that zero-tolerance laws increase safety in schools and that misapplications are rare and sensationalized.
Resistance to the school-to-prison pipeline takes many forms because of the scope of the systems involved. Some groups, such as Rethinking Prisons, see the school-to-prison pipeline as one direct target around which the general struggle for social justice can coalesce.
Educational and legal injustice are opposed by different types of groups, including anarchists and socialists. Alternatives to the system range include types of education reform and prison abolition.
The NYCLU takes an active role in fighting the school-to-prison pipeline and in educating New York public school students about their rights within the confines of their schools. These rights range from those pertaining to interactions with school safety and school resource officers to how to deal with metal detectors.
In January 2010, the NYCLU, ACLU and the law firm Dorsey & Whitney LLP filed a federal class action lawsuit challenging the New York City Police Department’s practice of wrongfully arresting and using excessive force against children in New York City schools.
In August 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice released a letter of findings determining that the Lauderdale County Youth Court, the Meridian Police Department (MPD), and the Mississippi Division of Youth Services (DYS) are violating the constitutional rights of juveniles in Meridian, Mississippi. The department’s investigation showed that the agencies have helped to operate a school-to-prison pipeline whereby children arrested in local schools become entangled in a cycle of incarceration without substantive and procedural protections required by the U.S. Constitution.
- Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination
- Education reform
- John Taylor Gatto
- Jonathan Kozol
- Kids for Cash scandal
- The New Jim Crow
- Prison–industrial complex
- Racial Segregation
- School bullying
- School shooting
- School discipline
- School violence
- The War on Kids (documentary film)
- Zero tolerance (schools)
- Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990
- New Jersey v. TLO
- "School-to-Prison Pipeline". ACLU. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
- Wald, Johanna; Daniel Losen (16 May 2003). "DEFINING AND REDIRECTING A SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE". School-to-Prison Pipeline Research Conference. Retrieved 05 May 2013.
- "School to Prison Pipeline toolkit" (pdf). New York Civil Liberties Union. 2007-10-16. Archived from the original on 2011-06-17. Retrieved 2011-06-17.
- The School-To-Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform, Catherine Y.Kim, Daniel J. Losen, Damon T. Hewitt
- Rethinking Schools (8 January 2012). "Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline". Common Dreams. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
- Breaking the School to Prison Pipeline: Identifying School Risk and Protective Factors for Youth Delinquency Exceptionality: A Special Education Journal Volume 13, Issue 2, 2005, Pages 69 - 88 Authors: Christine A. Christle; Kristine Jolivette; C. Michael Nelson
- Advancement Project (January 2010). Test, Punish, and Push Out. Just Democracy!. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
- "ABA Opposes 'Zero Tolerance' in Schools". ABC News. 20 February 2001. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
- Rojas, Rick (6 October 2011). "Zero-tolerance policies pushing up school suspensions, report says". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
- "School to Prison Pipeline: Talking Points". ACLU. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
- Homeroom Security: School Discipline In An Age of Fear. http://books.google.com/books?id=BzacO6Vl1tQC&pg=PA13&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false
- Beau Hodai, "Corrections Corporation of America Used in Drug Sweeps of Public School Students", PR Watch, 27 November 2012.
- Markow, Alan (16 February 2012). "Standardized testing coming under greater scrutiny". Independent Voter Network. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
- Kozol, Jonathan (2005). The Shame of the Nation. Random House. ISBN 978-1-4000-5245-5.
- McNally, David (2011). Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance. Spectre. ISBN 978-1-60486-332-1.
- Street, Paul (6 December 2011). "Urban Neoliberal Racism, Mass Poverty, and the Repression of Occupy Wall Street". Black Agenda Report. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
- Gagliardi, Vito A. (21 May 2001). "IN DEFENSE OF ZERO TOLERANCE". New Jersey Law Journal. Retrieved 17 February 2012.
- B.H. et al. v. City of New York, E.D.N.Y., Index No. CV 10-0210
- Justice Department Releases Investigative Findings Showing Constitutional Rights of Children in Mississippi Being Violated Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division Press Release, 10 August 2012