School-to-prison pipeline

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The term "school-to-prison pipeline" is a phrase that is used by scholars[1][2] and education reform activists and organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),[3] the Justice Policy Center, Advancement Project,[4] and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU)[5] 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 being neglectful or derelict in properly addressing students as individuals who might need extra educational or social assistance, or being unable to do so because of staffing shortages or statutory mandates.[6] The resulting miseducation and mass incarceration are said to create a vicious circle for individuals and communities.[7]

Activists state that the school-to-prison pipeline operates at all levels of US government (federal, state, county, city and school district) both directly as a result of zero tolerance policies, and indirectly due to exclusion from the school system.[5]


Educational researcher Christine Christle and her colleagues[8] 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.[5][9]

Zero-tolerance policies[edit]

Zero-tolerance disciplinary policies are often the first step in a child’s journey through the pipeline. Such policies impose severe discipline on students. The American Bar Association has been critical of these policies, calling them a "one-size-fits-all solution" that "has redefined students as criminals."[10]

In 2011, a study by the National Education Policy Center found that zero-tolerance policies across the nation were increasing suspension rates, with students being accused of offenses such as attendance violations, dress code violations, cell phone use, and other minor offenses. They found that zero-tolerance policies put children, particularly black and Latino children, on a path of truancy and likely incarceration.[11] Black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than White students and are held responsible for 70% of arrests while attending school. Simultaneously Latino students are 1.5 times more likely to be suspended than their White classmates.[12]

Michelle Fine believes zero-tolerance school policies are part of a banal public school-privatization agenda which, in seeking to redirect and profit from public-school dollars, transforms low-income youth into a disenfranchised class of prisoners.[13]

Excessive policing[edit]

According to the ACLU, many schools rely on poorly trained police, rather than teachers and administrators, to handle minor school misconduct.[14] 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.[15] 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 they were still unable 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.[15]

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." [16]

High-stakes testing[edit]

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.[17]

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.[9]

Institutional similarity[edit]

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").[9]

Systemic problems[edit]

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.[7][18]

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.[19] The feedback loop between standardized testing and school funding is seen by some as another facet of neoliberalism, creating competition between students and teachers who need good test scores to keep their jobs.[9]

According to an article from, the 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.[20]

Criticism of the "school-to-prison pipeline" theory[edit]

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.[21]


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.[7]

Advancement Project is another group active in the area of resisting the school-to-prison pipeline. The racial justice nonprofit has authored several reports on the issue including: “Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline” and “Derailed: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track.” These reports deal with the criminalization of students of color by their districts. Advancement Project co-director Judith Browne Dianis also addressed a Congressional hearing organized by Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) in 2012 on the devastating effects of the school-to-prison pipeline.[22]

Dianis said:

“In recent years, we have seen increased rates of suspension, expulsion, and arrest because adult – and not student – behavior has changed. Adults are treating young people like criminals, and are responding to typical student behavior that has no bearing on safety with discipline that defies common sense. Schools have redefined developmentally appropriate behaviors as crimes. Pushing and shoving in the schoolyard is now a battery, and talking back is now disorderly conduct.”[22]

Some success stories in the effort to curb the school-to-prison pipeline include:

New York[edit]

To address skyrocketing suspensions of youth of color in Buffalo, New York, Citizen Action New York and the Alliance for Quality Education led a successful campaign for a new school discipline code of conduct.[23]


The Denver, Colorado youth and parent group Padres y Jovenes Unidos helped facilitate a historic agreement between Denver Public Schools and the Denver Police Department to clarify and significantly limit the role of police in schools. Advancement Project attorneys served as a resource partner with Padres. The Intergovernmental Agreement also supports practices known as “restorative justice” that helps students learn from mistakes and make amends for misconduct, rather than a narrow focus on punitive discipline.[24]


Florida’s Fort Lauderdale/Broward Branch of the NAACP worked with Broward Public Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, along with other groups, to pass a Collaborative Agreement with the local police department and a new Code of Conduct & Alternative Programs. The new policy impedes the over-criminalization of youth by instead offering students counseling and other assistance aimed at addressing the root of behavioral problems.[25]


In January 2010, the NYCLU, ACLU and the law firm Dorsey & Whitney LLP filed a federal class action lawsuit[26] 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.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Catherine Y. Kim , Daniel J. Losen and Damon T. Hewitt. The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform. NYU Press, 2010. ISBN 0814748430.
  2. ^ Richard Mora and Mary Christianakis. Feeding the School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Convergence of Neoliberalism, Conservativism, and Penal Populism. Journal of Educational Controversy. Woodring College of Education, Western Washington University. Retrieved 10 March 2015.
  3. ^ "School-to-Prison Pipeline". ACLU. Retrieved 17 February 2012. 
  4. ^ Wald, Johanna; Daniel Losen (16 May 2003). "DEFINING AND REDIRECTING A SCHOOL-TO-PRISON PIPELINE" (PDF). School-to-Prison Pipeline Research Conference. Retrieved 5 May 2013. 
  5. ^ a b c "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. 
  6. ^ The School-To-Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform, Catherine Y.Kim, Daniel J. Losen, Damon T. Hewitt
  7. ^ a b c Rethinking Schools (8 January 2012). "Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline". Common Dreams. Retrieved 17 February 2012. 
  8. ^ 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
  9. ^ a b c d Advancement Project (January 2010). Test, Punish, and Push Out (PDF). Just Democracy!. Retrieved 17 February 2012. 
  10. ^ "ABA Opposes 'Zero Tolerance' in Schools". ABC News. 20 February 2001. Retrieved 17 February 2012. 
  11. ^ Rojas, Rick (6 October 2011). "Zero-tolerance policies pushing up school suspensions, report says". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 17 February 2012. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ Jennifer Weiss. Under the Radar: School Surveillance and Youth Resistance (Thesis). p. 78. Retrieved 2015-04-13. 
  14. ^ "School to Prison Pipeline: Talking Points". ACLU. Retrieved 17 February 2012. 
  15. ^ a b Homeroom Security: School Discipline In An Age of Fear.
  16. ^ Beau Hodai, "Corrections Corporation of America Used in Drug Sweeps of Public School Students", PR Watch, 27 November 2012.
  17. ^ Markow, Alan (16 February 2012). "Standardized testing coming under greater scrutiny". Independent Voter Network. Retrieved 17 February 2012. 
  18. ^ Kozol, Jonathan (2005). The Shame of the Nation. Random House. ISBN 978-1-4000-5245-5. 
  19. ^ McNally, David (2011). Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance. Spectre. ISBN 978-1-60486-332-1. 
  20. ^ Street, Paul (6 December 2011). "Urban Neoliberal Racism, Mass Poverty, and the Repression of Occupy Wall Street". Black Agenda Report. Retrieved 17 February 2012. 
  21. ^ Gagliardi, Vito A. (21 May 2001). "IN DEFENSE OF ZERO TOLERANCE" (PDF). New Jersey Law Journal. Retrieved 17 February 2012. 
  22. ^ a b "Judith Browne Dianis Testimony for School-to-Prison Pipeline Hearing", Advancement Project, Dec. 12, 2012
  23. ^ "Press Release: Buffalo passes new discipline code, reduce suspension", Aqeny, April 23, 2013
  24. ^ "A shift in Denver Limits on Police in Schools", Washington Post, Feb. 18, 2013
  25. ^ "Seeing the toll schools revisit zero tolerance", The New York Times, Dec. 3, 2013
  26. ^ B.H. et al. v. City of New York, E.D.N.Y., Index No. CV 10-0210
  27. ^ 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

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