The School-to-Prison Pipeline

By Amanda Odorimah, CFCC Student Fellow 2015-2016

At the beginning of this semester, I enrolled in the CFCC Student Fellows Program hoping to have an opportunity to help children and families involved with the court system. Having spent the past few years working in the classroom, I saw students who fell victim to problems such as multiple suspensions, grade retention, and expulsion. I became acutely aware of the need to address the way that schools handle student misconduct.

Now that I am a little further into my fellowship journey, I have gained a more in-depth understanding of the far-reaching devastation that takes place when schools are not adequately trained and prepared to address the underlying issues that may lead to a student’s misbehavior in the classroom.  When students misbehave, they are often sent out of the classroom and/or suspended for short periods of time. Unfortunately, students can’t learn when they are not in class. In a 2005 publication entitled, Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline, researchers said, “[T]aking children out of school for even a few days disrupts their education and often escalates poor behavior by removing them from a structured environment and giving them increased time and opportunity to get into trouble.”[1] How does missing a few days of school lead to potential incarceration? This question is best answered by understanding the School-to-Prison Pipeline.

What is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund said the School-to-Prison-Pipeline is created by policies that “push children out of school and hasten their entry into the juvenile, and eventually the criminal, justice system, where prison is the end of the road.”[2] For example, if a school policy blindly requires any student who physically assaults another student to be suspended, a second grade child would be suspended from school for pushing a classmate during recess. Rather than addressing the causes behind the inappropriate behavior, the student would be suspended from school. This approach would remove the student from the learning environment and would leave the student at a disadvantage upon returning to school. On the other hand, if the school has a discipline policy geared at correcting behavior, the student may have received a reprimand less stigmatizing and harmful than suspension.

One School System’s Approach to Addressing the Problem

The Maryland State Board of Education is requiring its local school boards to develop school discipline policies that focus on keeping children connected to school and education. Student suspension and/or expulsion are to be a last resort.[3] It will be interesting to see what approach the various school boards develop.

If you were asked to help develop discipline policies for one of the local school boards, what approach would you suggest?


[1]NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline (October 10, 2005),

[2] Id.

[3] The Washington Post, Maryland School Board Approves New Discipline Regulations (January 28, 2014),

4 thoughts on “The School-to-Prison Pipeline

  1. The prison pipeline needs to end. We should definitely be thinking about alternative forms of discipline. I think school administrators and judicial bodies need to eliminate the word suspension from their vocabulary. There have been many studies done to show that out of school suspensions do not work. In fact, since 2011, only 5 states including Maryland have outlawed or greatly reduced out of school suspension/expulsion. I think the idea of zero tolerance also needs to go. These two phrases are what feed the prison pipeline. A few ideas that I would add are: 1. Increasing the number of programs such as the truancy court program around the country. These types of programs really need funding, but with the right people spearheading these movements, they can be very effective. Early intervention and education is of utmost importance. These should also include emotional support, and any other services. 2. Another results based approach is Positive Behavioral Interventions and supports (PBIS) PBIS44 is used in more than 20,000 schools nationwide, using school-wide proactive strategies to encourage positive social behaviors, rather than focusing only onpunishing negative behaviors. Behavioral
    expectations, and the ability to recognize and
    manage emotions and to problem solve, are
    taught to students just as other core curriculum
    subjects are taught. Emphasis is placed on a
    school climate that fosters social and academic
    growth and sense of community.

    My source-

  2. I agree that it would be great to includes topics such as problem solving into the core curriculum. Students face many challenges throughout their lives and would benefit greatly from learning methods to help them effectively deal with those challenges.

  3. I think it’s very difficult because there are so many components lacking in the school system to begin with. Starting from the beginning of education, the schools are pushing the students through unprepared which starts the domino effect, the school-to-prison pipeline. When your students aren’t prepared and aren’t learning they are unable to focus and contribute to their education which in turn makes distractions and truancy far more attractive. The teachers are over-worked, underpaid and the school system is not looking at the issues that need attention, which is always the problem. The finances and things like that come first. The students that are not excelling are pushed to the side. The children are taught that they have no future. There is no simple solution. The only thing I can suggest is that more groups like the cfcc get involved and continue to contribute their time and efforts to help at least one person.

  4. These schools have become overburdened with problems and the school to prison pipeline is one of them. It seems that the administration, in most situations, lack the appropriate conflict skills to resolve these problems efficiently.

    A positive step towards change could be implementing an education initiative for the school administration and employees. If we were to educate the teachers and administrators at the school, on efficient conflict resolution practices, they could in turn educate the children to deal with their conflicts non-violently.

    Punishment is not the right solution in every situation and can exacerbate the underlying issues. Though this idea might be a good start, there are many moving parts to this question. Unfortunately, this issue will only be fixed if a number of reforms are implemented. We need to help children grow and learn in healthy environments, while simultaneously teaching the communities, parents, teachers and children in a way that promotes change. Until then, the pipeline will continue and we will continue to let down a large number of children in our school systems.

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