By: Yolian Ogbu


For centuries, societies have believed in the power of education. Today, we still believe that an effective education system can solve deep-rooted societal issues, such as the cycle of poverty and overburdened prisons. This belief has translated into legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 in the United States. However, the existence of the school-to-prison pipeline seems to contradict these long-standing beliefs.

Harsh, zero-tolerance disciplinary policies that push students out of the classroom lead to an increased likelihood that misbehaving students are introduced into the criminal justice system. Many schools, especially those in urban, low-income areas, have implemented strict measures against misbehaving students, including police presence and automatic punishments. These measures have resulted in an endless flow of youth to juvenile detention centers for minor classroom infractions. While these policies may be well-intentioned, they pave the road to institutionalization for many youths, a consequence that has lead many to refer to these policies as contributing to a school-to-prison pipeline.

What is perhaps most concerning is the two groups of students who are disproportionately victims to the school-to-prison pipeline: racial minorities and children with disabilities. For both groups, there is a significant difference in suspension and expulsion rates than the rest of the population. It’s even worse for racial minorities with disabilities. Countless studies, including those conducted by Daniel J. Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, have found that the racial differences in disciplinary rates in schools have increased since the 1970s. These studies have also found that using suspension as a method of discipline greatly increases the chances that a student will end up behind bars. To have such stark differences based on race and disabilities is simply unacceptable.

According to the US Department of Justice, between 1997 and 2007, the amount of school resource officers (SRO) in the United States increased by 38%. Schools with these SROs have higher criminalization rates and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on these officers, according to Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools, a 2011 report released by the Justice Policy Institute. Along with zero-tolerance policies, this has led to the unprecedented likelihood for students to be arrested on campus. A vast majority of these arrests have been due to nonviolent offenses. Zero-tolerance policies assume a one-size-fits-all stance for infractions on school grounds. However, the nature of every offense is different, and to dole out the same consequence for every and any offense is illogical.

So how can we stymie the flow of the school-to-prison pipeline? It all begins in the classroom. Teachers should be encouraged to use positive behavior supports and intervention strategies for at-risk students instead of zero-tolerance policies. This should reduce the rates of criminalization and support at-risk students. Schools also have a role to play. The amount of school resource officers should be minimized and police force should be utilized as a last-resort option. Schools should also ensure that the student codes of conduct are up to date and comprehensive so that students are not unfairly punished. Governments may have the most important role. Governments need to allocate funds towards schools for more long-term solutions such as teacher training and development, rather than short-term solutions such as police presence.

The school-to-prison pipeline deprives millions of youths of a quality future and puts them on track for an institutionalized future. Given the already overcrowded prisons all over the world, it is critical that schools start addressing this issue. There are numerous complications to reform, such as school safety, but with cooperation from the classroom to the government, great strides can be made towards addressing this issue.

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