New York State School Boards Association

Shutting down the school-to-prison pipeline

On Board Online • February 8, 2010

By Edwin C. Darden 

Research shows that a child who has been suspended or expelled is more likely to fall behind in school, be retained a grade, drop out of high school, commit a crime, and become incarcerated as an adult. Critics say many students – often poor and from minority groups – are “pushed” into the criminal justice system in a phenomenon called “the school-to-prison pipeline.”

In studies of the relationship between school discipline and incarceration, school boards are usually cast in the role of the villain. Analysts say students’ downward spirals often begin with school districts’ zero tolerance policies and the suspensions and expulsions they trigger.

Advocates for change in school discipline and juvenile justice say children are being denied their right to an education as a result of school and government policies and practices.

The Advancement Project, a group founded by veteran civil rights lawyers, in January issued a report entitled, Test, Punish and Pushout: How “Zero Tolerance” and High Stakes Testing Funnel Youth into the School to Prison Pipeline.

Meanwhile, a coalition of groups led by Brown University have organized the School to Prison Pipeline Mapping for Action Project. The group is examining New York City’s school-related policies and practices that it believes contribute to youth involvement in the juvenile or criminal justice system.  

The road to perdition 

While it is unclear to what degree students are being “pushed” into juvenile justice and prison, there does appear to be a relationship between being in trouble with the law and dropping out. A first-time arrest in high school almost doubles the odds of a student dropping out, and a court appearance nearly quadruples the odds, according to a 2006 study by Gary Sweeten, an Arizona State University professor and criminologist. A 2003 study by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 41 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons were dropouts, while only 18 percent of the general population lacked a high school diploma.

“The school-to-prison pipeline operates directly and indirectly,” according to Donna Lieberman, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). “Schools directly send students into the pipeline through zero tolerance policies that involve the police in minor incidents, which too often lead to arrests, juvenile detention referrals, and even incarceration. Schools indirectly push students into the criminal justice system by excluding them from school through suspension, expulsion, discouragement and high stakes testing requirements.”

If that’s how the school-to-prison pipeline works, we can expect a surge in the prison population. Suspensions and expulsions from U.S. schools nearly doubled between 1974 and 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Education. In addition, more than 100,000 students were expelled and 3,300 students suspended in the 2005-2006 school year alone. The NYCLU asserts that this frequency of punishment is excessive and that, too often, police are involved unnecessarily.

Studies show students who are disabled, poor or minority receive the harshest school punishments. According to a fact sheet produced by New York Civil Liberties Union, black students represent 17 percent of national public school enrollment but accounted for 36 percent of suspensions and 31 percent of expulsions. 

Zero tolerance for zero tolerance

Many analyses of the school-to-prison pipeline start with “zero tolerance” polices adopted fully or partially by many school boards nationwide. Zero tolerance is a disciplinary regime that matches the most serious offenses in school to an automatic and intentionally strict punishment. For example, some schools require mandatory expulsion for students carrying weapons or drugs.  

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund issued a groundbreaking 2007 report called, “Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” which observed, “Although concerns about school violence are used to justify these policies, many suspensions, expulsions and even arrests are for minor conduct that is typical adolescent behavior. Examples abound of students facing removal from school and criminal sanctions for conduct such as pushing other students, throwing food, cursing, or disobeying a teacher.”

Other opponents of zero tolerance policies include the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association, which say automatic suspensions or expulsions can interfere with a child’s mental and physical health, social development, and educational well-being.

Zero tolerance has one virtue, though: it is swift. Having no exceptions avoids delays in removing a student perceived as dangerous. After incidents like the Columbine school shooting, schools learned they need a mechanism to remove potentially violent students quickly.

Like so many public policy questions, the decision to institute zero tolerance policies represents a balancing of interests between the individual student or students involved in unacceptable behavior and the school community as a whole. Opponents of zero tolerance policies say the student has a right not to be rejected by the educational system, which can have devastating personal consequences. Proponents of zero tolerance policies, such as many school attorneys and security experts, concentrate on the rights of students and staff to be in a safe school environment. 

What school boards can do

If school board members do not lead on this issue, others will. For example, the New York City Council is considering the Student Safety Act, a measure that requires the New York City Police Department and city schools to count and submit quarterly reports on suspensions, expulsions and arrests of minority children, students with disabilities, and English language learners.

Likewise, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in September 2009 issued a notice of proposed changes to the bi-annual Civil Rights Data Collection. The changes would require schools to report data on discipline, alternative schools, zero tolerance, police-involved matters and more.

A favored solution among the advocate community is PBS or PBIS (positive behavioral supports or positive behavior intervention and supports). PBIS emphasizes collecting data, prevention by teaching kids “prosocial behavior” and evaluating and responding to statistical information.

Other possible approaches:

  • Non-punitive discipline such as peer mediation, conflict resolution, truth and reconciliation committees, guidance counseling and mentoring.
  • Behavior contracts that students, parents and school officials must sign.
  • Community service as an alternative to formal punishments.
  • After-school detention

The link between student dropouts and prison bars is well-established. Although the role of school policies in the phenomenon is unclear, school boards should monitor trends in student disciplinary actions and ensure that making a mistake or even a series of mistakes does not preclude the opportunity for academic success. Aggressive policing outside of school can also dramatically affect students’ futures, so school officials should have an ongoing dialogue with police officials. School board members and school districts that focus on solutions – now – give themselves a reasonable chance to permanently clamp the school-to-prison pipeline. 

Edwin C. Darden is an attorney and expert on legal and policy issues that influence K-12 public education. He is the principal of EdAdvocacy, a consulting firm near Washington, D.C. For a longer version of this article, see

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