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Breaking Down the School to Prison Pipeline

06 October 2014 Published in The ACLU of Utah Activist

handcuffThere is an alarming trend that pushes out students from school and into the juvenile justice system or pushes them to drop out of school increasing their risk of entering prisons as adults.

Week of Action to Stop the School to Prison Pipeline, Oct 4 - 11 >>
Education NOT Incarceration: Challenge the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Oct 11 >>

What is the School-To-Prison-Pipeline? A Brief Introduction

*This is the introductory post in a series of monthly blog posts explaining the many dimensions of the School-To-Prison-Pipeline.

Did you know that in the 2009-2010 academic year there were enough suspended students to fill every single National Football League and Major League Baseball stadium in the U.S.A and still have some students left over (US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights)?

All throughout the U.S., including Utah, there is an alarming trend that pushes out students from school and into the juvenile justice system or pushes students to drop out of school which dramatically increases their risk of entering prisons as adults. This nationwide problem is called the School-To-Prison Pipeline (STPP).1 STPP is the systematic push of students out of school through overly harsh discipline policies and practices. These policies and practices can take the form of zero tolerance discipline, the misuse of School Resource Officers (SROs),2 and the overuse of suspensions/expulsions. The STPP arose from implicit bias and the “Harsh on Crime” movement, to name a couple of causes. The STPP criminalizes youth, especially those of color.

In the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) Discipline Snapshot from March 2014, it was reported that, nationally in the 2011-2012 school year, there were 3.5 million students in in-school suspension, 1.9 million students in single out –of-school- suspension, 1.55 million students with multiple out-of-school suspensions, and 130,000 expelled students. But this only tells part of the story. Longitudinal studies indicate that between 1/3 to 1/2 of students can expect to be excluded from school between kindergarten and the twelfth grade in one year (Losen, Hewitt and Todson). For black males, almost 70% percent of them will receive at least one suspension or expulsion during their K-12 years (Shollenberger). This rate of exclusion is abnormal for our country’s history and has been growing since the 1970s (Losen, Hewitt and Todson).

You may be thinking that this type of discipline is utilized because students misbehave in ways that warrant it, involving valid and be concerns about school safety. School safety should be a concern, but the discipline chosen should fit the misbehavior.

Schools have the right and responsibility to keep their campuses safe. However, harsh discipline is often chosen in situations that do not put public safety in jeopardy. For example, in Texas serious safety concerns only represented less than 5% of all disciplinary removals from school (Losen, Hewitt and Todson). Exclusionary measures are taken too often for minor infractions, such as disruptive behavior (Losen, Hewitt and Todson).3 For example:

  • In Los Angeles a sixteen year old girl was arrested for dropping a piece of birthday cake and failing to clean it up to the satisfaction to the school’s SRO (Kim and Geronimo)
  • In Florida a six-year-old girl was charged with a felony and two misdemeanors for throwing a temper tantrum in school(Kim and Geronimo).

The most disturbing part of the trend of unreasonably harsh punishment, are the consequences for students who are being pushed down the school-to-prison pipeline. Harsh discipline puts students at higher risk of entering the criminal justice system in their lifetime. People who are suspended just once before grade 9 are at higher risk of dropping out of school (Losen, Hewitt and Todson). And those who drop out of school are more than eight times more likely to go to prison than students who graduate (Harlow). In addition, studies, controlled for as many as 80 variables, have shown that schools with higher-suspension rates tend to have lower graduation rates and no benefits in test scores (Losen, Hewitt and Todson). On the other hand, schools with lower suspension rates have had academic gains (Losen, Hewitt and Todson). Harsh punishment does not help students or school climates, but does negatively affect students’ educations and futures.

The STPP disproportionately affects students of color and vulnerable populations, such as LGBTQ youth and students on Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).4 Nationally, black students are 3 times more likely than their white peers to be suspended (US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights). Black students, nationally, have a 3.5 higher risk of being expelled than their white students (US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights). According to data recently collected by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, students of color make up 75% of referrals to law enforcement and 79% of school-based arrests while consisting of only 39% of the nation’s overall public school population.

The data shows that, for the same conduct, white students are less likely to be suspended than their peers of color. Research shows that students of color are not misbehaving more than their white counterparts (Rudd). Instead, students of color are being disciplined more harshly for relatively minor infractions under vague regulations, such as disorderly behavior, compared to their white counterparts who are brought in more often for clear violations of more serious infractions (Wald).

The time to act is now. With the new federal guidelines, My Brother’s Keeper initiative, lawsuits occurring, the plethora of scholarly articles and reports on the issue, legislation passed to address STPP such as the Smart School Discipline Bill in Colorado, and events like the National Week of Action Against School Pushout it is clear that there is national momentum to address the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Data from the CRDC analyzed in the new S.J. Quinney College of Law’s report “From Fingerpaint to Fingerprints: Utah's School-to-Prison Pipeline” shows that Utah too is struggling to understand and handle its own STPP. It is clear that we need to address this issue locally. It’s time we committed to education instead of incarceration for the next generations of Utahns. A better future for our students is a better future for everyone.

Look out for another blog post this month talking about zero-tolerance policies and drugs in schools!

Need more information on how STPP works? Need a visual? Try this https://www.aclu.org/school-prison-pipeline-game

A collection of all ACLU of Utah material on the School-to-Prison Pipeline >>

To submit questions, monthly theme ideas, or sign-up for national and local school to prison pipeline news updates email Racial Justice Associate, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

1. Also called the school house-to-jailhouse track and the cradle-to-prison pipeline. The latter takes into account the root causes of this phenomenon, e.g. poverty and racism.

2. School Resource Officers are sworn police officers often employed by local police departments assigned to schools. In some school districts, officers may be directly employed by the district (Kim and Geronimo).

3. Disruptive behavior in commonly not defined. The vagueness of this infraction allows for harsh discipline to be chosen for minor offenses.

4. Individualized Education Programs are plans to meet the unique needs of students who receive special education.

Works Cited
Harlow, Caroline. "Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: Education and Correctional Populations." U.S. Department of Justice, 2003.

Kim, Catherine and I. India Geronimo. Policing in Schools: Developing a Governance Document for School Resource Officers in K-12 Schools. White Paper. ACLU. New York, 2009.

Losen, Daniel, Damon Hewitt and Ivory Todson. "Eliminating Excessive and Unfair Exclusionary Discipline in Schools Policy Recommendations for Reducing Disparities." Discipline Disparities Research to Practice Collaborative, 2014.

Rudd, Tom. Racial Disproportionality in School Discipline. Brief. Kirwan Institute. Columbus, 2014.

Shollenberger. Closing the school discipline gap: Research for policymakers. New York: Teachers College Press, 1997.

US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. 2006 Data Collection . <ocrdata.ed.gov/ocr2006rv30>.

Wald, Johanna. "Can "De-biasing" Strategies Help to Reduce Racial Disparities In School Discipline?" Harvard Law School , 2014.


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