What’s the School-to-Prison Pipeline?
Let’s talk about the school-to-prison pipeline. The name might be a new concept to many, but this issue is of the utmost importance to our public education system. Essentially, the school-to-prison pipeline is the name given to a trend of criminalization of in-school behavior rather than dealing with behavior problems as an education issue. This trend results in young students being sent to jail/juvenile detention or dealing with police officers instead of teachers and administrators. This trend is particularly disturbing due to the inequity that it fosters in the school environment: it disproportionately targets male, African-American students and students with special needs.
The school-to-prison pipeline stems from zero-tolerance policies and augmented police presence. Zero-tolerance policies require schools to mandate harsh punishment regardless of the circumstances. For example, fighting in schools is sometimes addressed with zero-tolerance policies or the more colloquial “one strike, you’re out” mentality. These policies disproportionately target minorities and leave lasting consequences that follow young students throughout the rest of their lives. Many students’ academic lives are permanently disrupted, as minimal educational opportunities exist in juvenile detention centers. This phenomenon also contributes directly to the prison-industrial complex that adds to the systemic racial inequality at large.
The inequality of the public education system manifests clearly in the school-to-prison pipeline: African-American students are more likely than white students to be punished with suspension or arrest for the same actions at school. Students with special needs also face a much higher chance of being arrested or expelled, particularly when those children are also minorities or are from low-income families. This inequity is a serious problem, but the root of this issue is that it is reflected in society at large. The students who are arrested or sent to juvenile detention as a result of zero-tolerance policies or police involvement more often than not have committed non-violent offenses. These policies have impacted children as young as five years old. Students should not be afraid of school, particularly not afraid of those in the school who are meant to protect them. The school-to-prison pipeline is a direct threat to students and most disturbingly, targets poor, male, African-American students who already face other facets of systemic injustice outside of the supposedly secure walls of their schools.
Thinking about what we can do to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline is daunting. Much of what needs to be done comes from a policy level: restructuring discipline in schools away from zero-tolerance policies, reducing police presence, training teachers on how to recognize and avoid personal bias. However, there are certainly small things that you can start doing now. Volunteer in your local public schools, particularly if you live in an area that might have many low-income or minority students. Depending on where you live, programs range from literacy and mentoring to after-school sports. If you can’t find a program to volunteer with that piques your interest, make your own. Volunteer with or donate to organizations that focus on ending the school-to-prison pipeline, like the ACLU, the NAACP, or NEA. At the very least, talk about this problem with your friends and family. Most importantly, get educated. This article is just a drop in the water compared to the wealth of information and research on the school-to-prison pipeline. The more people have constructive, informed discourse on the problems in our society, the better those problems get, even if you feel you don’t have the time to do something tangible.
(Illustration by Chris Buzelli)