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  • Danielle Davis

Rebranding the school to prison pipeline: From classroom to Zoom room

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, students across the country adapted to online, distance learning—a reality that disproportionally added to the systemic and educational inequalities impoverished students and students of color already faced. Although students were no longer patrolled by cops in hallways or subjected to harsh disciplinary tactics, the school-to-prison pipeline found its way to Zoom.

The school-to-prison pipeline is an alarming nationwide practice in which students are funneled out of the education system and into the criminal legal system. Driven by zero-tolerance discipline policies, predetermined punishments for student misconduct and misbehavior, and the increased presence of police in schools—branded as “school resource officers”—the convergence between school systems and criminal systems has tracked a disproportionate number of low-income students, students with disabilities and Black students out of schools and into adult prisons and jails.

The rebranded crisis of the Zoom-to-prison pipeline has already altered the trajectory of some children’s lives. For example, in mid-May of 2020, Grace was sent to juvenile detention for “failure to submit any schoolwork [or get] up for school,” which the judge deemed a violation of her probation. Grace is a 15-year-old Black student at a predominantly white school. The loss of Grace’s individualized education plan (IEP) to support her ADHD and mood disorders during virtual learning led to the criminalization of her forgetfulness and anxiety; she was deemed a “threat to the community”for behaving in a way that any other overwhelmed student in the midst of a pandemic would behave.

Grace is not alone. Isaiah Elliott, a seventh-grader with ADHD, was suspended for holding a toy gun during his online art class. Ka’Mauri Harrison, just nine years old, faced nearly two weeks of suspension for picking up a BB gun in his own bedroom. They, too, are Black. They, too, were punished for normal childhood behavior in their own home.

The well-worn pathway from schoolyard to prison yard shows no indication of slowing down either; instead, it seems to have widened its control mechanisms as students have expanded their broadband connectivity. Within the education system, discipline has functioned as a method of control and compliance, building off narratives of BIPOC youths as the new “super predator” or more generally, the desire to control the deviant from the American norm of white and privileged. Virtual learning now allows the insidious motives of discipline to permeate beyond the schoolyard. Following a similar pattern to strict in-person classroom-management tactics—schools have gone so far as to enforce the expectation that students have a designated work area for online classes. With students being forced to keep their cameras on, their private lives are now a source of possible disciplinary infractions. While e-learning provides a host of possible data protection challenges, the zoom learning environment or virtual classroom further “violate[s] physical and decisional privacy.”These privacy rights include a “right to seclusion and solitude” and a “right not to be subject to interference by others.”

While increasing the number of police officers in schools has not proven to make schools safer, there is little recognition of how the new Zoom-to-prison pipeline will harm future generations of students. The persistent achievement disparities between white and Black students and across income levels are likely to be exacerbated as a result of the school shutdown, and now, the main solutions to eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline stand in greater jeopardy. In an ideal world, accountability of school leaders and investment in classroom-community support would lead to the bottom-up transformation to amend the streamlined path from classroom to jail cell. Schools, both brick and virtual, require culturally sustaining practices and communities that imbibe a more restorative approach.

While long-term solutions must be parsed out to rid the American education system of its systemic racial biases, schools must immediately tackle their punitive policies to address the evolving negative consequences. As the ongoing pandemic unveils more and more collateral consequences, the Zoom-to-prison pipeline should not be a concurrent epidemic that children and families must recover from.

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