School-to-Prison Pipeline

In the United States, the school-to-prison pipeline pushes disadvantaged students into the criminal justice system.

In the United States, one result of inequality in education is the high rate of incarceration. This particularly impacts people of color. In 2016 Bureau of Justice statistics showed that individuals identifying as black and Hispanic are overrepresented in U.S. prisons. This overrepresentation is a long-standing trend in the United States, although the disparity increased sharply beginning in the 1970s, when changes in the criminal justice system led to greater overall rates of incarceration. The disparity in incarceration rates for different racial groups occurs for a number of reasons. However, disparities in education play a role. The school-to-prison pipeline describes a trend in American public education in which disadvantaged children are pushed out of school and into the criminal justice system. This process is linked to zero-tolerance policies in schools. A zero-tolerance policy is an approach to discipline that entails a strict set of school rules and harsh punishment for infractions. Critics of zero-tolerance policies argue that they criminalize normal school behavior issues. Harsh consequences are given for a wide range of behaviors. These include major infractions such as fighting and possession of drugs or weapons. Many zero-tolerance policies also target speech or behavior that is considered disrespectful, clothing or hairstyles that are deemed inappropriate, unauthorized use of cell phones or other electronic devices, and excessive tardiness or absences.

Zero-tolerance policies are frequently directed at students of color, students with disabilities, and students who live in poverty. Schools in low-income areas are more likely to use zero-tolerance policies. Frequently, zero-tolerance policies require suspension and expulsion from school when students break rules. Numerous studies show that students of color are suspended and expelled at higher rates than white students. For example, a 2017 study of California schools found that compared to white students, black students miss four times as many days of instruction because of suspension. A 2018 report found that the suspension rate for students with disabilities is twice the average rate for all students.

Students who are expelled may have difficulty gaining admission to a different school. Suspension and expulsion can both lead to disengagement from school, making students less interested in school and less motivated to succeed. Students who are suspended or expelled are much more likely to drop out of school altogether. A 2012 study found that students who are suspended one time during ninth grade are twice as likely to drop out of high school as students who are never suspended. Suspension and expulsion are indirect means that push students toward the criminal justice system. People who drop out of high school are much more likely to serve time in federal or state prison than people who earn a diploma. Thus researchers argue that zero-tolerance policies that boost suspension and expulsion rates are linked to incarceration rates.

Some schools also directly link students to the criminal justice system. In zero-tolerance schools, students are frequently taken to court for issues such as fighting. With the rise of zero-tolerance policies, there has also been a rise in police presence in schools. In 1975 about one percent of U.S. schools had a police officer present on campus. This began to change in the 1980s, when more schools began to hire school resource officers. A school resource officer (SRO) is a law enforcement officer who is assigned to work at a school to help maintain discipline, including by arresting students. By the 1990s most urban schools had SROs. In 2016, 42 percent of all schools had an officer on site. Students are more likely to be arrested at school, including for nonviolent offenses, than they were prior to the widespread use of SROs. Many educators, researchers, and civil rights groups criticize the practice of using the criminal justice system for school discipline issues and object to police presence in schools. They point out that these practices make it much more likely that a student will get a juvenile record. Such practices funnel the students that are subject to them (mostly low-income students, students of color, and students with disabilities) into the criminal justice system.

Researchers and educators also point out that the behaviors punished by zero-tolerance policies are behaviors that students, particularly adolescents, engage in relatively frequently. Even behaviors such as fighting, using drugs, or possessing weapons are to be expected to some extent within a student population. These behaviors occur in advantaged schools, but those students are less frequently subjected to harsh punishment. In addition to issues related to zero-tolerance policies, students in disadvantaged schools are less likely to receive a high-quality education. This limits their opportunities for higher education and employment. This lack of opportunity is also a risk factor for incarceration. Thus a number of factors contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. Lower-quality schools mean fewer educational and employment opportunities. These issues, combined with zero-tolerance policies, police presence in schools, and frequent use of the criminal justice system for relatively normal school behavior issues, increase the likelihood that disadvantaged students will become incarcerated.