What Caused the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

School discipline and classroom management have been challenges as long as American schools have been established. As US schools began to integrate, the disparities in how schools implement discipline became apparent. However, when other institutions in the United States were much more explicitly oppressive, the issue of prejudice in school discipline remained overlooked by much of the country for decades. It wasn’t until mass incarceration became a nationwide crisis that policing in schools began gaining attention. As scholars began trying to decipher the many contributions to the issue of mass incarceration, an irrefutable link between schools and the criminal justice system began to emerge. Over time as this correlation was being further investigated, it was labeled as the school-to-prison pipeline (STPP). The awareness of STPP has grown and gathered attention from Americans of all backgrounds, especially in the last few years, being considered a detrimental form of institutionalized racism for the youth of color. However, many of the nuances and details of how it functions and its impact can get lost.

According to the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, STPP “refers to the policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” While students of all backgrounds and identities can fall into the STPP, data has shown on a national scale that it disproportionately impacts youth of color and those with disabilities. Policies enacted by school administration target youth considered to be at-risk, and instead of the solution being one of support or rehabilitation, it most commonly is reactive and punitive. This ostracization of often already disenfranchised youth can push students away from a school system that already feels non-supportive and into the criminal justice system.

There are many policies and practices that contribute to the school to prison pipeline, either by discouraging children from continuing with their education because of feeling inadequate or directly placing students into the criminal justice system. Insufficient resources in lower funded schools are one of the most systemic discouragements for youth of color. When adjusted for community income levels, predominantly black public schools receive on average 16 percent less in funding than mostly white schools, according to EdBuild. That is approximately $2,200 less per student. Studies have consistently shown that schools with less funding, therefore less resources, have higher dropout rates. But disciplinary policies implemented by the school administration itself also plays a role. Practices such as zero-tolerance alternative schools and the increased use of suspensions all elevate the likelihood of a student dropping out of high school or committing infractions again in the future. American University School of Education reports that students who miss 15 days of school or more in a year are seven times more likely to drop out. This is especially jarring when it is learned that black students miss nearly five times as many school days due to suspensions than white students. And despite only 10 percent of Americans over 25 not having a high school diploma, they make up 40 percent of the prison population. Other practices, like school resource officers being present on campus or involving law enforcement in even nonviolent incidents, directly places students into the criminal justice system.

The solution to STPP on the surface seems relatively straightforward; reduce the number of students we punitively punish for mostly nonviolent incidents. However, school officials are often hesitant to implement this idea, believing that they will be unable to ensure a safe and orderly institution. If we hope to be successful in decreasing school suspensions and eliminating law enforcement involvement on school campuses, we need to establish effective alternative modes of accountability. This new method of holding youth accountable for their actions does not have to be one that is punitive, nor does it need to focus on punishing the offense. Studies have shown that options such as restorative justice and behavioral interventions effectively reduce recidivism rates in students. Utilizing alternatives to the traditional disciplinary system can help students of color now and into their adulthood.

Youth Transforming Justice helps to divert youth from the school to prison pipeline by acting as an effective alternative to punitive punishment. Instead of simply determining a punishment in response to an incident, YTJ eer Solutions focuses more on trying to understand the support a teen might need that will help prevent future infractions. YTJ works with teens to accept accountability for a poor decision, reflect on what relationships they have affected and how to repair damage, and find ways to give back and reintegrate into the school community. This is why Peer Solutions’ recidivism rate is a mere six percent instead of the nationwide recidivism rate for juveniles of nearly 75 percent. Through our community engagement and harm reduction requirements, respondents learn more than simply that they “did a bad thing.” Rather, respondents come out of Peer Solutions with new skills and passions that decrease the likelihood of committing new infractions. We are also proud of the fact that many of our past respondents decided to stay with us as volunteers and leaders years beyond completion of their restorative plan.


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