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  • Alejandra Rojas

Expulsion Rates High, Graduation Rates Low: The School to Prison Pipeline

Updated: Oct 23, 2023

Statistics show that over 200,000 text messages are sent every second of the day. As technology has risen, particularly among the current generation, students across the country are inevitably using their cell phones in school. Someone you know is likely snapping, tweeting, or instagramming from their high school English class. What if every teenager in America using their cell phone was brutally beaten and arrested at school for using their phone in class? That is precisely what happened to a sixteen-year-old South Carolina girl who faced misdemeanor charges, a $1,000 fine, and a broken arm in an incident involving an on-campus police officer. In a disturbing nationwide trend, minors, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are sitting in jailhouses because of severe zero-tolerance policies and harsh punishments in schools that have busted the gates of the school-to-prison pipeline wide open.

What is the School to Prison Pipeline? The School-to-Prison Pipeline refers to the set of policies and practices that make the criminalization and incarceration of children and youth more likely and the attainment of a high-quality education less likely. In the past three decades, state and local spending on jails and prisons has increased at nearly three times the rate of funding for public elementary and secondary schools. The country holding less than five percent of the world’s population now houses nearly 25% of the world’s prisoners; a large percentage of which are juveniles. On any given day, nearly 60,000 youth under the age of 18 are incarcerated in the United States. The presence of zero tolerance and punitive discipline policies within schools have negative effects on offending students by increasing the likelihood of future disciplinary problems, and ultimately increasing contact with the juvenile justice system.

While studies show that youth crime has steadily declined over the past two decades, public school districts are imposing stricter policies than ever before. By criminalizing minor disruptive behavior, tardiness, absences, non-compliance, and disrespect, school systems are steadily pushing children out of classrooms and into jail cells, interrupting their education and creating devastating long-term consequences.

According to the Education Law Center, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has bolstered the expansion of the School to Prison Pipeline in several ways. First, by focusing on standardized test scores, schools are pressured to perform at high rates or face closure. While intended to raise test scores, this practice has actually served an opposite function and encourages the displacement of lower performing students to alternative education programs or their removal from the classroom by way of suspension, expulsion and arrest. Second, the emphasis on standardized testing encourages robotic instruction by having teachers essentially “teach to the test” rather than fostering a more well-rounded environment that increases student engagement and participation. Third, the learning environments inevitably created by NCLB have led to student disengagement and disruption. This is turn, has led to schools to rely on law enforcement to handle in-school disciplinary actions. Fourth, NCLB aims to reach every child by proving their learning growth through standardized testing, but does not address the challenges of teaching different learners, or reintroducing re-entering students into the school atmosphere once they have been gone for any given period of time. Once a student has been pushed out once, the rate of recidivism increases and it becomes extremely challenging for students to resume their education.

Who is affected by this trend? While the dynamics created by criminalizing behavior that was once addressed by school officials affects students across the country, studies show that the pipeline is populated by mostly students of color, students with disabilities, and other minorities. According to data from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than their white peers. Not far behind are students with disabilities, who are twice as likely to be suspended than students without disabilities.

How do we solve this issue? Experts in mass incarceration and education provide a plethora of research and best practices that educators and administrators alike can use to address the School-to -Prison Pipeline and implement policies that would reduce the number of children and juveniles entering the criminal justice system. While NCLB has created many of the issues the foster the growth of the School-to-Prison Pipeline, modifications to the law could help to resolve some of the issues it currently does not address. School quality should be measured through a range of variables that consider schools as a whole, rather than placing undue weight on standardized test scores. Moreover, rather than funneling money to law enforcement to address normative adolescent behaviors, money should be diverted to training programs on engaging different learners, acknowledging and changing bias, and emphasizing behavior support that is not centered on removal by law enforcement.

In response to the Pipeline crisis, schools around the country have implemented Restorative Justice Programs that have yielded overwhelmingly positive results. These programs and grant-funded and foster formal restorative mediations, conferences, and interventions aimed at addressing the root of the problems students face in school and providing tools to address them. After only a year of implementation, several high schools have shown diminished rates of suspension, absences, and a reduction in the number of students referred to school administrators.

While educators, administrators, and the NCLB are not to blame for the various social, emotional, and academic issues plaguing students throughout America, they can provide a means to facilitate positive solutions to many of the issues that students face. By creating positive environments focused on restoration rather than removal, well-rounded learning rather than test-based learning, and implementing practices to encourage students to feel comfortable in schools, rather than isolated and attacked, schools can help to narrow the pipeline and empower individuals and communities alike.


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