What is the school-to-prison pipeline?

And how do we stop it?

The school to prison pipeline is a term coined early in the early twenty-first century to refer to the policies and practices that directly and indirectly push students out of school and on a pathway to prison.  These policies and practices include overuse of harsh school disciplinary procedures including suspension, seclusion, restraint, and expulsion; increased policing and surveillance that create prison-like environments in schools; referrals to law enforcement and the juvenile justice system, and an alienating and punitive high-stakes testing-driven academic environment that diverts students from the intended purpose of the public education system and deposits them in the correctional system.  

Interview with Beth Tolley on her research into the school to prison pipeline.

When America got tough on crime in the 1980’s, passing the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, the schools followed suit with adoption of zero tolerance and punitive disciplinary policies. Soon after passage of the 1994 Gun-Free Schools Act the prison industry became big business and the number of individuals in the criminal justice system, including juveniles exploded. Schools began to resemble prisons as more and more police were placed in schools, metal detectors were added to school buildings, restraints and seclusion, drug sniffing dogs and random searches became a part of the school culture.  In some states, the school codes of conduct were based on the criminal code.  Minor disruptive behavior that had previously been resolved by school staff became criminalized.  

As documented in Education or Incarceration: Ending America’s school-to-prison pipeline, not all students charged and convicted of crimes were guilty of crimes, nor did the punishment fit the crime. Even as crime rates dropped dramatically, more students, especially black and brown students, and students with disabilities were harassed, punished, and referred to the criminal justice system. There was no recognition or consideration given to the fact that zero tolerance runs counter to the purpose of education where making mistakes is part of the learning process; or that children are not just little adults.  Development of the part of the brain responsible for judgment, decision making, and complex problem solving is not completed in humans until the mid- twenties!  Yet there are children as young as five years old being arrested in our nation’s schools for their behaviors, behaviors that are age appropriate or that are brain biological responses to stress.

Several striking facts have been reported in the research.  Benefits for poor families with children fell by more than 40% in real terms in most states from 197 to 1996. Since the 1996 welfare reform, benefits have fallen to the point where, as of July 2016, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits for a family of three without any other income were under half of the official poverty line in every US. State, and in most state, benefits were less than 30% of the poverty line. In addition to not being financially supported by policies that had previously supported people in poverty, the systems the provided the means for individuals to educate and thus “better” themselves were defunded.  For example, the money previously spent on higher education was instead spent for prisons in New York and California between 1988 and 1998.

The second striking fact was a shift to the belief that market values are more important than trust, compassion, and solidarity. This belief was exemplified in the Wall Street view that growth in the prison industry and the growing incarceration of young people was good news. Shockingly, it was reported that even though “crime dropped precipitously, ”stock analyst Bob Hirschfield notes that “males 15-17 years old are three times as likely to be arrested than the population at large, and the proportion of 15–17 year olds is expanding at twice the overall population.’’ Rather than being alarmed, if not morally repulsed, by these figures, Hirschfield concluded that it was a ‘‘great time to purchase shares’’ in the new prison growth industry.

The last striking fact is the disproportionality of exclusionary discipline, referrals to law enforcement, and not coincidentally, incarcerated individuals. For the 2015-16 year, the most current year for which data is available from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, black students comprised 15% of the student population, but 27% of the students restrained and 23% of the students secluded and 31% of the students referred to law enforcement.  Black males made up 8% of the student enrollment but accounted for 25% of the male students who received one or more out of school suspension and 23% of the male students who were expelled. The Pew Research Center indicates that the percentage of black adults in the U.S. in 2017 was 12% and the percentage of blacks in prisons was 33%.  Implicit bias, explicit bias and bias built into the very codes, laws, policies themselves contribute to the racial disproportionality.

Students with disabilities are also on the receiving end of wildly disproportionate rates of discipline and referral to law enforcement.  For the 2015-16 year, students with disabilities comprised 12% of the student population, but represented 71% of students restrained, 66% of students secluded, 26% of students receiving one or more suspensions, 24% of students expelled and 28% of students referred to law enforcement. The Bureau of Justice Statistics 2015 report indicates that estimated 32% of prisoners and 40% of jail inmates reported having at least one disability.   Given the gross underfunding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as well as the fact that the state funding remained below pre-2008 recession levels until recently (and some are still below that level), one could easily hypothesize that students with disabilities are not and have not been receiving appropriate supports and accommodations as part of their Individualized Educational Plans (IEP), put rather  were punished for their disabilities.  This theory is well supported by the many parents who have shared their stories with special education advocates and through in-person and on-line family support groups.

The answers are in front of us.  We must educate our students, not push them off to the side and onto the path that leads to prison.  We can and must do better.


  • Beth Tolley

    Beth retired in 2018 from a leadership position in Virginia’s lead agency for early intervention for infants and toddlers and is a mother, grandmother and advocate.

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