School-to-prison pipeline

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The United States school-to-prison link or school-to-prison pipeline is a metaphor used to describe the increasing patterns of contact students have with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems as a result of the recent practices implemented by educational institutions, specifically zero tolerance policies and the use of police in schools.[1] The metaphor is currently a hot topic of debate in discussions surrounding educational disciplinary policies as media coverage of youth violence and mass incarceration has grown over the past decade or so.[1][2][3]

U.S. School-to-Prison Link increasingly reflects practices of Mass Incarceration unique to the U.S.

The current sociopolitical climate, relating to mass incarceration, existent in the United States serves as a critical component in increasing the contact the incarceration system has with the United States education system, as patterns of criminalization translate into the school context.[1] Specific practices implemented in United States schools over the past ten years to reduce violence in schools, including zero tolerance policies and an increase in School Resource Officers have created the environment for criminalization of youth in schools. This results from patterns of discipline in schools mirroring law enforcement models.

The disciplinary policies and practices that create an environment for the United States school-to-prison link to occur disproportionately affect Latino and Black students which is later reflected in the rates of incarceration. Between 1999 and 2007, the percentage of black students being suspended has increased by twelve percent, while the percentage of white students being suspended has declined since the implementation of zero tolerance policies.[4] Relating this statistic to patterns of overall incarceration in the U.S., from 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people.[5] The graphic to the right shows the uniqueness of this practice in comparison to other countries across the globe, with the United States incarcerating a larger portion of its population than any other country in 2008. The United States holds 25% of the world’s prisoners, but only has 5% of the world’s population.[6] Of the total incarcerated population in the United States, 61% are Black or Latino.[5]


Exclusionary disciplinary policies, specifically zero tolerance policies, that remove students from the school environment increase the probability of a youth coming into contact with the incarceration system. Approximately 3.3 million suspensions and over 100,000 expulsions occur each year. This number has nearly doubled since 1974, with rates escalating in the mid 1990s as zero tolerance policies began to be widely adopted. Rising rates of the use of expulsion and suspension are not connected to higher rates of misbehaviors.[1] Zero tolerance policies are discussed in more detail later in the article, in the Current policies maintaining the link section.

Research is increasingly beginning to examine the connections between school failure and later contact with the criminal justice system for minorities[7] Once a child drops out, they are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than youth who graduate from high school.[8] Studies have found that 68% of all males in state and federal prison do not have a high school diploma.[9] Suspensions and expulsions have been shown to increase a young person's probability of dropping out and becoming involved with the criminal justice system. This increased risk of dropping out and becoming involved with the criminal justice system is caused by factors that result from exclusionary discipline (any discipline that removes a student from the school environment) including; a loss of instruction time, an increased ability to engage in criminal behavior as a result of the lack of daily structure provided through education, and police targeting in and around school grounds.


School disciplinary policies disproportionately affect Black and Latino youth in the education system, a practice known as the discipline gap. This discipline gap is also connected to the achievement gap. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights issued a brief in 2014 outlining the current disparities. Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students. The Advancement Project found that "In the 2006-2007 school year, there was no state in which African-American students were not suspended more often than white students".[10] On average, 5% of white students are suspended, compared to 16% of black students. Black students represent 16% of student enrollment, and represent 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students subjected to a school-related arrest. Combined, 70% of students involved in "In-School arrests or referred to law enforcement are Black or Latino."[5][9][11] The majority of these arrests are under zero tolerance policies.

Disparities were found in the implementation of zero tolerance policies (ZTPs) in relation to minor offenses. In 2010, in North Carolina black students were punished for the same minor offenses, specifically cell phone, dress code, disruptive behavior and display of affection by more than 15 percent for each category of offense than white students. "The Council of State Governments Report found that black students were more likely to be disciplined for less serious “discretionary” offenses, and that when other factors were controlled for, higher percentages of White students were disciplined on more serious nondiscretionary grounds, such as possessing drugs or carrying a weapon".[12]

A 2009 study reported that the racial disparity in rates of school suspensions could not be explained solely by racial differences in rates of delinquent behavior, and that this disparity in turn was "strongly associated with similar levels of disproportion in juvenile court referrals."[13] In contrast, a 2014 study found that although black students were more likely to be suspended, this disparity "was completely accounted for by a measure of the prior problem behavior of the student," and concluded that "the use of suspensions by teachers and administrators may not have been as racially biased as some scholars have argued."[14]

Current policies maintaining the link[edit]

Zero tolerance policies[edit]

Zero tolerance policies are school disciplinary polices that set predetermined consequences or punishments for specific offenses. The zero tolerance approach was first introduced in the 1980s to reduce drug use in schools. The use of zero tolerance policies spread more widely in the 1990s. To reduce gun violence, the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 (GFSA) required that federal funding "must 1) have policies to expel for a calendar year any student who brings a firearm to school or to school zone, and 2) report that student to local law enforcement, thereby blurring any distinction between disciplinary infractions at school and the law" .[1] During the 1996-1997 school year, 94% of schools had zero tolerance policies for fire arms, 87% for alcohol, and 79% for violence.[15]

Over the past decade, zero tolerance policies have expanded to predetermined punishments for a wide degree of rule violations. Zero-tolerance policies do not distinguish between serious and non-serious offenses. All students who commit a given offense receive the same treatment.[16] Behaviors punished by zero tolerance policies are most often non-serious offense and are punished on the same terms as a student would be for bringing a gun or drugs to school. In 2006, 95% of out-of-school suspensions were for nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness.[17] In 2006-2007, "out-of-school suspensions for non-serious, non-violent offenses accounted for 37.2% of suspensions in Maryland, whereas only 6.7% of suspensions were issued for dangerous behaviors".[10] In Chicago, the widespread adoption of zero-tolerance policies in 1994 resulted in a 51% increase in student suspensions for the next four years and a 3,000% increase in expulsions.[18]

The most direct way these policies increase the probability of a youth coming into contact with the incarceration system is through their exclusionary methods. Suspension, expulsion, and an increased risk of dropping out all contribute to a youth's increased chances of becoming involved with the incarceration system. Suspension removes students from the structure and supervision provided through schooling, providing opportunities for youth to engage in criminal activities while not in the school environment. Other factors may include "increased exposure to peers involved in antisocial behavior, as well as effects on school performance and completion and student attitudes toward antisocial behavior".[19] Suspension can lead to feelings of alienation from the school setting that can lead to students to feel rejected, increasing chances of relationships with antisocial peers. Relationships with peers have strong impacts on student behavior, demonstrated through differential association theory. Students are more than twice as likely to be arrested during months in which they are forcibly removed from school.[20] Students who have been suspended are three times more likely to drop out by the 10th grade than students who have never been suspended. Dropping out makes that student three times more likely to be incarcerated.[11]

Policing in schools[edit]

Zero tolerance policies increase the number of School Resource Officers (SRO) in schools, which increases the contact a student has with the criminal justice system. Students may be referred by teachers or other administrators but most often zero tolerance policies are directly enforced by police or school resource officers.[1] The practice of increasing the number of police in schools contributes to patterns of criminalization.[21] This increase in SROs has led to contemporary school discipline beginning to mirror approaches used in legal and law enforcement. Zero tolerance policies increase the use of profiling, a very common practice used in law enforcement. This practice is able to identify students who may engage in misbehavior, but the use of profiling is unreliable in ensuring school safety, as this practice over identifies students from minority populations. There were no students involved in the 1990s shootings who were Black or Latino and the 1990s school shootings were the main basis for the increase in presence of police in schools.[22]

A Justice Policy Institute report (2011) found a 38% increase in the number of SROs between 1997 and 2007 as a result of the growing implementation of zero tolerance policies.[8] In 1999, 54% of students surveyed reported seeing a security guard or police officer in their school, by 2005, this number increased to 68%. The education system has seen a huge increase in the amount of students referred to law enforcement. In one city in Georgia, when police officers were introduced into the schools, "school-based referrals to juvenile court in the county increased 600% over a three year period". There was no increase in the number of serious offenses or safety violations during this three-year period.[23] In 2012, forty-one states required schools to report students to law enforcement for various misbehaviors on school grounds.[10] This practice increases the use of law enforcement professionals in handling student behavior and decreases the use of in-classroom (non-exclusionary) management of behaviors.

In 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC) expressed concern with increasing criminalization of students in response to school disciplinary problems, and recommended that the US government "promote the use of alternatives to the application of criminal law" to address such issues. The HRC also noted its concern with the use of corporal punishment in schools in the US.[24] In the second Universal Periodic Review of the United States' human-rights record, the government avowed taking "effective measures to help ensure non-discrimination in school discipline policies and practices".[25]

Alternative approaches[edit]

Restorative justice model[edit]

Restorative justice approaches provide the space for students, teachers, families, schools, and communities to "resolve conflict, promote academic achievement, and address school safety".[10] The use of restorative justice in schools began in the early 1990s with initiatives in Australia. Restorative justice models are used globally and have recently been introduced to school disciplinary policies in the United States as an alternative approach to current punitive models, such as zero tolerance.[10]

Critiques of the pipeline metaphor[edit]

A recent but growing body of scholarship has raised critiques of the pipeline metaphor. Alicia Pantoja has referred to such critics as "non-mainstream SPP Scholars."[26] These critiques have called for, in the words of Pantoja, "re-conceptualiz[ing]" the metaphor "as a system or web" to avoid "linear..., simplistic and deterministic understanding of the school-based criminalization of youth."[26] Erica Meiners raised similar critiques as early as 2007 writing that "linkages between schools and jails are less a pipeline, more a persistent nexus or a web of intertwined, punitive threads."[27]

Ken McGrew, in a critical review of the literature associated with the pipeline metaphor, argues that these critiques of the pipeline metaphor are inadequate because they simultaneously partially reject the metaphor while continuing to reify its usage. He argues that the pipeline metaphor should be rejected entirely and that it should be stated explicitly that the school-to-prison pipeline, as a phenomenon, does not in actuality exist. He suggests that viewing complex social phenomena through the pipeline metaphor narrows vision resulting in several problems he identifies in the associated literature, including: taking the metaphor to be a social phenomenon, ignoring relevant history (of the educational system, incarceration, fields of inquiry, and the metaphor itself), that the literature is instrumental and narrowly focused on policy, and the literature being under theorized and ignoring relevant theories. Among the theories and concepts that he argues are missing in the pipeline literature, he states that the Prison-Industrial Complex, Resistance, Reproduction, and Production theories, and Economic Structure (including Marxist analysis) are the most important.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Heitzeg, Nancy (2009). "Education or Incarceration: Zero Tolerance Policies and the School to Prison Pipeline" (PDF). Forum on Public Policy Online. 
  2. ^ a b McGrew, Ken (2016-06-01). "The Dangers of Pipeline Thinking: How the School-To-Prison Pipeline Metaphor Squeezes Out Complexity". Educational Theory. 66 (3): 341–367. doi:10.1111/edth.12173. ISSN 1741-5446. 
  3. ^ G., Richardson, John; Douglas, Judge, (2013-01-01). "The Intergroup Dynamics of a Metaphor: The School-to-Prison Pipeline". Journal of Educational Controversy. 7 (1). ISSN 1935-7699. 
  4. ^ Hoffman, Stephen (2014-01-01). "Zero Benefit Estimating the Effect of Zero Tolerance Discipline Polices on Racial Disparities in School Discipline". Educational Policy. 28 (1): 69–95. doi:10.1177/0895904812453999. ISSN 0895-9048. 
  5. ^ a b c "Criminal Justice Fact Sheet". Retrieved 2015-11-09. 
  6. ^ Porter, Tracie (2015). "The School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Business Side of Incarcerating, Not Educating, Students in Public Schools". Arkansas Review. 
  8. ^ a b Schept, Wall, Brisman, Judah, Tyler, Avi (2015). "Building, Staffing, and Insulating: An Architecture of Criminological Complicity in the School-to-Prison Pipeline". Social Justice. 
  9. ^ a b "Fact Sheet: How Bad Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline? | Tavis Smiley Reports | PBS". Tavis Smiley | PBS. Retrieved 2015-11-09. 
  10. ^ a b c d e Gonzalez, Thalia (2012-04-01). "Keeping Kids in Schools: Restorative Justice, Punitive Discipline, and the School to Prison Pipeline". Journal of Law and Education. 
  11. ^ a b "The Impact of School Suspensions, and a Demand for Passage of the Student Safety Act | New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) - American Civil Liberties Union of New York State". Retrieved 2015-11-20. 
  12. ^ Losen, Daniel J. (2013-07-01). "Discipline Policies, Successful Schools, Racial Justice, and the Law". Family Court Review. 51 (3): 388–400. doi:10.1111/fcre.12035. ISSN 1744-1617. 
  13. ^ Nicholson-Crotty, Sean; Birchmeier, Zachary; Valentine, David (December 2009). "Exploring the Impact of School Discipline on Racial Disproportion in the Juvenile Justice System". Social Science Quarterly. 90 (4): 1003–1018. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6237.2009.00674.x. 
  14. ^ Wright, John Paul; Morgan, Mark Alden; Coyne, Michelle A.; Beaver, Kevin M.; Barnes, J.C. (May 2014). "Prior problem behavior accounts for the racial gap in school suspensions". Journal of Criminal Justice. 42 (3): 257–266. doi:10.1016/j.jcrimjus.2014.01.001. 
  15. ^ Curtis, Aaron (2014). "Tracing the School-to-Prison Pipeline from Zero-Tolerance Policies to Juvenile Justice Dispositions". Georgetown Law Journal. 
  16. ^ Roberge, Ginette (2012). "From Zero Tolerance to Early Intervention: The Evolution of School Anti-bullying Policy" (PDF). Laurentian University. Retrieved 2015-11-15. 
  17. ^ "The Emergence of the School-to-Prison Pipeline | Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division". Retrieved 2015-11-16. 
  18. ^ Giroux, Henry (2001). "Mis/Education and Zero Tolerance: Disposable Youth and the Politics of Domestic Militarization". Project Muse. 
  19. ^ Hemphill, Sheryl A.; Herrenkohl, Todd I.; Plenty, Stephanie M.; Toumbourou, John W.; Catalano, Richard F.; McMorris, Barbara J. (2012-04-01). "Pathways From School Suspension to Adolescent Nonviolent Antisocial Behavior in Students in Victoria, Australia and Washington State, United States". Journal of community psychology. 40 (3): 301–318. doi:10.1002/jcop.20512. ISSN 0090-4392. PMC 3774047free to read. PMID 24049218. 
  20. ^ Healy, Cheryl. "Discipline and Punishment: How School Suspensions Impact the Likelihood of Juvenile Arrest". Chicago Policy Review. Retrieved 2015-11-20. 
  21. ^ George, J.A. (2015). "Stereotype and School Pushout:Race, Gender, and Discipline Disparities". Arkansas Law Review. 
  22. ^ American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force (December 2008). "Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools?". American Psychologist. 
  23. ^ Brady, Kevin P.; Balmer, Sharon; Phenix, Deinya (2007-08-01). "School—Police Partnership Effectiveness in Urban Schools: An Analysis of New York City's Impact Schools Initiative". Education and Urban Society. 39 (4): 455–478. doi:10.1177/0013124507302396. ISSN 0013-1245. 
  24. ^ Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of the United States of America (Report). United Nations Human Rights Committee. CCPR/C/USA/CO/4. 2014-04-23. para. 17. 
  25. ^ Report on the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: United States; Addendum – Views on conclusions and/or recommendations, voluntary commitments and replies presented by the State under review (Report). Human Rights Council (United Nations). A/HRC/30/12/Add.1. 2015-09-14. para. 18. 
  26. ^ a b Pantoja, Alicia (2013). "Reframing the School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Experiences of Latin@ Youth and Families". Association of Mexican American Educators Journal. 7 (3). 
  27. ^ Meiners, Erica (2007). Right to Be Hostile: Schools, Prisons, and the Making of Public Enemies. New York: Routledge. pp. 31–32. ISBN 978-0415957120.