In Parenting

The School to Prison Pipeline

The phrase “school to prison pipeline” has been used by a lot of politicians, educators, and corrections officers, but only a few people really understand what it is referring to. The truth is that the school to prison pipeline is a complicated and controversial concept that many people believe doesn’t even exist. Other groups, however, have dedicated themselves to stopping this phenomenon.

|SEE ALSO: Controlling School Violence|

The phrase school to prison pipeline started showing up in the late 1990s to early 2000s. While it’s impossible to tell who started it, it began to get popular among groups researching the problems effecting minority and low-income students in schools. Many of these groups decided to focus on the issue of increased rates of incarceration among the populations that they were studying. At the time, jail statistics showed that nearly one in three black men would spend some amount of time in prison during their life. Approximately one out of every ten black men were currently in prison. This video by Vox explains the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon briefly.

The Causes

Multiple studies were commissioned by both the government and private organizations to investigate the causes of this dramatic increase in incarceration rates. These groups were looking at a variety of factors that effected these populations’ performance in school, ability to find jobs, and overall health and happiness. They discovered that many problems could be traced back to the experiences that these individuals had as children.

Specifically, the focus for these groups became the ways in which these kids were treated in public schools. Soon, several studies came out showing that many of the people currently in jail had criminal histories going back to the time when they were children. A theory began to develop that these increased juvenile offender rates could be traced back to the schools these children were enrolled in.

Zero Tolerance Policies

Beginning in the early 1990s, so-called zero tolerance policies began to become popular in many public school systems. Originally intended to prevent the use and distribution of illegal drugs on campuses, these policies soon came to encompass anything that could be considered assault or disruptive behavior. Now instead of removing a few very problematic drug dealers and providing a strong deterrent to kids who would try drugs at school, these policies are removing dozens of students for anything from fighting to speaking out of turn in class.

In fact, there is a lot of controversy over how severe the infractions that these kids are committing and being punished for. While the early days of these policies typically saw kids being expelled for assaulting staff and other students, theft, and other severe crimes, today there are numerous anecdotal reports of kids being suspended or expelled for talking back to teachers, standing up out of turn in class, and other relatively minor issues. Schools administrators are now increasingly relying on law enforcement to keep students in line, thus handing over disciplinary procedures to police officers who may not be qualified to handle them. This article on shows how police officers may be ineffective substitutes for counselors or other adults trained to work with young people who need guidance more than harsh discipline.

A Deepening Problem

The age of the kids has also gone down. Whereas most of the kids being expelled or suspended for crimes were in high school when these policies began to become popular, today there are numerous reports of children in elementary and even Head Start programs being thrown out of public schools. Because these cases are usually not immediately referred to the police however, it is next to impossible to get reliable statistics for the frequency by which this is happening.

This created a number of problems. To start with, the children who were removed from the school were often given out of school suspensions that lasted for several days. In poor neighborhoods where parents were unable to take time off of work, this meant that these kids would spend that time unsupervised. In addition to missing valuable instructional time, these kids would spend time with gangs and/or commit petty crimes. Our article A Dominant Culture of Gangs explains this issue further. If and when the kids did return to school, they would be well behind their classmates.

In other cases, the children were expelled from their neighborhood school permanently. Most of these kids were then assigned to correctional schools. The educational requirements at these schools are often not the same as “regular” schools, so the children assigned to them are often put on an educational path that does not lead to college. In many cases, they can expect a certificate of completion instead of a high school diploma. Combined with the long distance that children must travel to get to these schools, most kids simply drop out.

The Consequences

The result of these zero tolerance policies was that hundreds of children were being suspended or expelled from public schools. These kids were missing out on an education, and instead seemed to be ushered into a life of committing petty crimes. Zero tolerance policies in the schools were being combined with tough on crime policies in the inner cities that focused on prosecuting juvenile offenders.

Unfortunately, these kids were often the ones already at risk for criminal activities. Children who were acting out in school often were dealing with issues at home, as well as other factors such as low school performance, poverty, and even mental health issues. To force these kids out of a classroom did nothing to fix any of these problems, but often made it harder for them to keep up in class. Spending time at home during the school day gave them hours of unsupervised time in which they found activities and attention with local gangs. This led to thousands of children across the nation moving almost directly from schools to detention facilities; hence the school to prison pipeline.

To show that there is truly a pipeline of kids moving from schools to prison, advocates point to school to prison pipeline statistics that show that 70% of all children who are referred to law enforcement for actions committed in school are minorities. A minority child is 3.5 times more likely to go to prison than a white child who committed the same crime. These statistics are from a few years back and can be found on this Tavis Smiley Reports show page on the PBS website.

Advocates of Zero Tolerance Policies

Of course, there are a number of people and organizations who have questioned the existence of this pipeline, and/or have publicly stated that they believe the problem is being blown out of proportion. These zero tolerance policies were put into place after a number of school shootings and a sharp increase in violence in inner city schools. While the results of these policies have led to a decrease in violent incidents in schools, they have had some harsh consequences for the students who have been expelled. To read more about crimes among teens, read our article Violent Crime Analysis on Teens.

Advocates of these policies, however, state that removing these “problematic” children has led to a safer school in which children who want to learn are provided with a calm, peaceful environment in which they can do so. Proponents of these policies argue that the children who are being expelled would have had eventual run-ins with the law. By removing them from school earlier, the public school system is being made safer. Opponents say that these policies are removing many children from the educational environment who need it the most. Some even argue that schools put these policies in place merely to raise their ratings.

Possible Solutions?

One of the main problems with these arguments is that there are a few solutions that most people can agree with. Dropping zero tolerance policies could leave many inner city schools, along with their staff and students, vulnerable to increased violence and other crimes. Instead of referring these kids to law enforcement, a number of experimental programs are being tried that rely on everything from peer review boards to in-school suspensions to counseling. The effectiveness of these programs is under question by numerous sources who are looking at everything from their long-term effectiveness to their cost.

Some of these programs have included alternatives to out of school suspensions such as in school suspension, community service, and counseling. There are other programs that take children deemed at risk for violent behaviors and increase the level of services provided to them and their families. The most successful programs work with not just the child, but also the community in which they live. This article on discusses 5 ways to end the school to prison pipeline.

The Bigger Picture

There are a number of studies and programs being implemented to look at the ways in which society can help those who are now in prison. Schools in juvenile detention facilities and adult jails are looking at ways to help their students catch up on the schooling that they have missed while still making sure that they meet the requirements in order to graduate on time.

With the right amount of work and dedication, the phenomenon of the school to prison pipeline is one that will hopefully be viewed as only a temporary problem in the overall history of America. The correct changes to policy can help to prevent this phenomenon from becoming an epidemic. A study called Education Or Incarceration: Zero Tolerance Policies And The School To Prison Pipeline is published on The Education Resources Information Center of the U.S. Department of Education and gives an in depth analysis on the entire subject.

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