What Is…the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

What appears to be a photo of someone in a prison.

In a post I made a couple of months ago about policing and schools with majority-minority populations, one of the replies to my post reminded me of how there was a connection between what I talked about and something called the “school-to-prison pipeline.” And, it is indeed the case that there is a connection between the post I wrote about a couple of months ago and the school-to-prison pipeline.

But what it is the school-to-prison pipeline?

In short, it is “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”[1] This trend, which some kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly vulnerable to (hence, this is an issue that often disproportionately affects kids of color and kids with mental health issues, to name two particular populations), involves isolating and punishing kids who cause trouble in school, in the process pushing them out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. In many such cases, various educational and counseling services might be most warranted, but instead students are often isolated and punished.

Some issues that lead to the school-to-prison pipeline include, but are not limited, to:

  • Zero-tolerance policies, which impose severe punishments upon students regardless of circumstances. Such policies are often punitive to the point that the punishment does not fit the crime. Such policies can push students out of the “school” part of the school-to-prison pipeline.
  • Police officers at schools, who are often responsible for policing the hallways at schools—a role usually reserved for teachers and school administrators. This can lead to something called school-based arrests—an issue that happens with some frequency.[2] Worse yet, these arrests can happen on quite a few occasions for minor behaviors,[3] issues that might not have resulted in arrest were it not for police officers at schools.
  • A lack of resources for many schools, which means that the extra educational support or counseling support that a troubled student might need is not available. Because of that lack of availability to such vital services (and generally the lack of ability some schools have in providing vital services), students can be at an increased risk for dropping out and for future legal involvement.[4]

So how do we address this pipeline?

For one thing, I think we need to go back to a question I asked in my previous blog post on policing and schools with majority-minority populations: Should we really have police officers in schools? I know that “abolish the police” is a controversial idea, but if police in schools don’t protect the schools, don’t protect the students at the schools, and mostly serve as a major enabler in the school-to-prison pipeline, then I honestly think that law enforcement at schools is doing way more harm than good. One other thing I will add is that if there must be law enforcement in schools (and I’m not convinced personally that it is something we must have), I think it is a must that said law enforcement is competent in interacting with kids the age that they’re supposed to work with and protect.

For another thing, zero-tolerance policies need to be reevaluated. Not all actions should receive the same punishment. Creating an environment of restorative justice (repairing the harm caused by the crime, as well as giving the offender the opportunity to do better in the future) as opposed to punitive justice (punishing the offender severely, regardless of the severity of the crime) gives an opportunity for people to learn from their mistakes, not to mention that it creates an environment likely to decrease the chances of seeing the school-to-prison pipeline come to fruition.

Last, but not least, in cases where local municipalities are unable to provide the resources needed for schools to be well-resourced, I think that states and the federal government need to step in and make sure said schools and school districts are properly resourced. A significant piece of school funding relies on local property taxes,[5] which means that if you live in an area where property values are depressed, then revenue from property taxes is depressed. This creates a ripple effect which leads to school funding in a district also being depressed. Depressed school funding, in turn, results in a lack of access to many resources for the students who need them the most.

The school-to-prison pipeline is shameful. Hopefully, in my lifetime, progress can be made to address this problem.

[1] https://www.aclu.org/issues/juvenile-justice/school-prison-pipeline

[2] There were nearly 70,000 such arrests nationwide in the 2013-14 school year. I would like to see more current data, but this number gives us a sense of how much of a problem this was, as of a few years ago: https://www.edweek.org/which-students-are-arrested-most-in-school-u-s-data-by-school#/overview

[3] https://steinhardt.nyu.edu/metrocenter/ejroc/ending-student-criminalization-and-school-prison-pipeline

[4] https://www.aclu.org/issues/juvenile-justice/school-prison-pipeline

[5] https://www.npr.org/2016/04/18/474256366/why-americas-schools-have-a-money-problem

28 Replies to “What Is…the School-to-Prison Pipeline?”

    1. Thanks for sharing, when you get around to it! But yes, more work needs to be done to make sure schools and school districts are properly resourced. This is a topic that probably deserves its own blog post at some point, but as long as a major driver of school funding is property taxes, we’re always going to get highly uneven results (and results that work against poor neighborhoods of color).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It does deserve a separate post.
        And this is exactly why I work to persuade folks that we need a new vision of society, founded on a shared set of principles that leads to shared resources, particularly for kids, and most especially for those kids who are the most vulnerable.

        “I know, I was there.”

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I think if there are going to be police officers involved with schools, they should be liaison officers whose sole reason for existing is prevention and diversion away from the criminal justice system

    Liked by 2 people

  2. A very complex issue. I taught in public schools for over 30 years so here are some of my observations.

    Regarding police in schools. Unfortunately we have some violent and armed students in our schools. Bullies.Students who intimidate other students and teachers. Well trained police liaison officers are needed. But trained to defuse not increase potentially violent situations. The reality is that schools are not isolated from the normal violence in our society.

    Zero tolerance policies are counter productive for a couple reasons. First, as an educational institution schools first job is to educate, not punish.It is to help the students change anti-social behaviors. young people will make stupid decisions.That is part of growing up. Punishment should not be the first resort,the last resort.

    Lack of resources is an old story. Also how limited resources are distributed is part of the problem, as well. Property taxes are the most unfair way to fund schools. It enforces the unequal quality of schools. Poor areas will have less money. also, I have seen resources misdirected in schools. We need to pay for schools with income taxes distributed equally and on a per student basis. For example, in my 30 plus years of teaching I have seen many “cuts” to education in order to stay within budgets. I have seen science teachers cut. English teachers cut. Math teachers cut. Gifted programs cut. Etc. In these same districts I have NEVER seen any sports programs cut . Never. That sends a real message to kids as to what is important.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, as a former longtime public school teacher yourself.

      You are absolutely correct that there are bullies, violent incidents, etc. in school. The question is how best to navigate through those issues. From what I’ve read data is conflicting as to whether police in schools actually makes schools safer, and a fair amount of data agreement showing that police are disproportionately placed in schools of color (even if said schools aren’t particularly violent per se). Those two things combined created my skepticism of officers in schools. Though, I will say that the solution you propose has merit too and actually to me seems in many ways similar to what the American Federation of Teachers proposes: https://www.edweek.org/education/the-police-in-schools-debate-needs-more-nuance-ed-groups-say/2020/08

      You also raise some good points about zero tolerance policies. As you said, kids make mistakes, and we need to have an environment where kids can learn from mistakes.

      The property taxes story is an old one indeed, but is definitely worth mentioning. All other things being equal (including decision-making, which can be really questionable with schools as you pointed out), property taxes is a major driver in the inequality of schools (in terms of funding and resources).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Good post.
    My understanding (which may not be accurate) about both zero-tolerance policies and growing police presence in schools was that they were in part a response to the school shootings. I don’t know if these measures are helpful against school shootings (I have my doubts) and I agree with you that they contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline as you’ve noted, but it would be good to better understand the rationale for zero-tolerance policies and policing in schools in the first place.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To answer your question about historical context, yes, you are at least somewhat right that zero-tolerance policies were a response to school shootings in the 1990s. They were also a response to concerns about crime in general. Looking back, it was an overreaction to a real concern (and school shootings still happen, so the policies don’t appear to work there, as far as I can tell).


  4. Very nice explanation of this issue. The problem is that the trend is only getting worse. The more a school looks and feels like a prison, the worse off all students are. The criminalization of student behavior should be a crime. It is time to once again view schools as places where students can learn not just about facts but also about themselves. And, part of learning is making mistakes and being able to learn from those mistakes. Our schools must be warm and supportive places that allow for young people to make mistakes, learn from them, and to then grow into responsible adults.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Brendan, I am so glad you brought up this issue. I just wrote a blog post about it at as well because it is such a huge issue, yet nobody really knows about it. It affects a lot of young people and it only seems to be getting worse. We have very similar views on the topic, so it’s nice to hear someone else’s opinion. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Tatiana! I look forward to reading more of your posts as well, and yes we have a lot of similar views on this topic. The one thing I might add is that in addition to kids of color, this pipeline also affects kids with mental health issues (and thus also contributes to jailing people with mental health issues as opposed to seeking therapy and/or clinical treatment for the issue).


  6. “It has been said that if child abuse and neglect were to disappear today, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual would shrink to the size of a pamphlet in two generations, and the prisons would empty. Or, as Bernie Siegel, MD, puts it, quite simply, after half a century of practicing medicine, ‘I have become convinced that our number-one public health problem is our childhood’.” (Childhood Disrupted, pg.228).

    Trauma from unhindered toxic child abuse/neglect typically results in the helpless child’s brain improperly developing. If allowed to continue for a prolonged period, it acts as his/her starting point into an adolescence and (in particular) an adulthood in which its brain uncontrollably releases potentially damaging levels of inflammation-promoting stress hormones and chemicals, even in non-stressful daily routines. In short, it can make every day an emotional/psychological ordeal, unless the mental turmoil is doused with some form of self-medicating.

    Yet, society seems to perceive thus treat human procreative rights as though we’ll somehow, in blind anticipation, be innately inclined to sufficiently understand and appropriately nurture our children’s naturally developing minds and needs. I find that mentality — however widely practiced — wrong and needing re-evaluation, however unlikely that will ever happen.

    A psychologically and emotionally sound (as well as a physically healthy) future should be all children’s foremost right — especially considering the very troubled world into which they never asked to enter — and therefore child development science should be learned long before the average person has their first child.

    Liked by 2 people

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