School-to-Prison Pipeline Reform

By James Torrence, CFCC Student Fellow (2015-2016)
As America moves toward criminal justice reform, we must consider preventive measures to ensure that vulnerable children and teenagers do not enter the criminal justice system. Many have called on policymakers and school administrators to reform school disciplinary practices, such as zero-tolerance policies, in the face of research which shows that disparities in disciplining children of color are feeding the school-to prison pipeline.

Advocates and experts agree with the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) position that disciplinary practices are pushing black school-aged children, especially our most at-risk students, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Too often the attention has been focused on addressing the symptoms and not the root causes. Do we prioritize incarceration over education? Does reprimanding students for simple disciplinary issues, such as talking or texting during class, or even “mouthing off,” warrant arrests or long-term suspensions? Simply put, NO! Disciplinary actions, including arrests, expulsions, long-term suspensions, and/or repeated short-term suspensions, have been found to place students at a disadvantage. The arrest numbers for students of color stand in stark contrast to their Caucasian peers. According to Education Week, 70% of all in-school arrests are for black or Latino students. Further, according to a National Council on Disability study on students of color with disabilities, racial and ethnic disparities in suspensions and expulsions suggest the presence of unconscious or implicit biases in school discipline, which contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline crisis. Are we selectively and disproportionately punishing vulnerable populations of children and teenagers?

In October, the longtime debate on how to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline was reinvigorated when the nation became outraged over a video depicting a police officer grabbing and slamming a black teenage girl at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina. Reportedly, the student defied instructions by a teacher and school administrator prior to the police officer’s intervention. Many questioned whether the student had violated the law or school policy. As a former graduate fellow for an urban school district, my heart was unsettled and angered viewing the traumatic encounter. Several classroom teachers worried about the teenage girl’s self-esteem and the underlying causes for her alleged defiance. Days later, we learned that the student’s mother had passed away, and the student was living in foster care. The teenager’s experience in Spring Valley illuminates the school-to-prison pipeline and this country’s failure to protect and educate vulnerable children and teenagers.

How can we end the zero-sum game of school-based discipline that sustains the school-to-prison pipeline? Since Brown v. Board of Education, America has struggled to improve the quality of public education, yet countless studies have shown how vastly segregated our schools remain. Today, our school children are immersed in an educational climate plagued with inadequate funding and staff who are hyper-focused on improving test scores. In these environments, punitive school-based discipline policies have resulted in severe punishments without concern for whether the student actually violated a school policy or law and whether the punishment is proportionate to the offense. For example, an honor roll student was taken away from Polk County (Florida) High School in handcuffs after her volcano science experiment, containing mixed toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil, exploded. Despite having no previous criminal record, this student was suspended for 10 days, charged with two felonies, and was nearly expelled – only to be saved by the ensuing public outcry.

School districts too often employ swift disciplinary measures to address so-called “bad” students, in the belief that removing these students from the classrooms will improve learning and test scores for other students. This movement is counterintuitive, as it leads to increased academic disengagement, higher dropout rates, substance abuse, and lower test scores. Society’s best investment should be therapeutic solutions to the root causes of students’ negative behavior. In September, the U.S. Department of Education challenged states and local school districts to come up with alternatives to referring children to the police and estimated that cost-savings would be upwards of $15 billion each fiscal year. State and local governments’ cost-savings could support social programs for underserved communities and educational programs for underperforming schools. According to the U.S. Department of Education, primary schools refer a quarter of a million students to law enforcement each year, a majority of whom are students of color and/or with disabilities.

Seasoned educators in Baltimore City understand that their students have complex lives. Their students struggle with poverty, homelessness, mental health issues, parental substance abuse, domestic violence, and more. If these students demonstrate questionable behavior, these professionals understand that such behavior might be a manifestation of a greater problem. It is the root causes – the myriad societal ills that these students face – which need to be addressed. Undeniably, the school-to-prison pipeline is a zero-sum game. Society, however, can choose not to play this game and instead can invest in addressing society’s ills. America must prioritize education over incarceration.

Camera, L. (2015, September 30). Education Secretary Duncan Combats School-to-Prison Pipeline. Retrieved November 20, 2015, from

Lynch, M. (2015, August 28). 5 Facts Everyone Needs to Know About the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Retrieved November 20, 2015, from

New Federal Report Explores Ways to Break the School To Prison Pipeline for Students with Disabilities. (2015). Retrieved November 20, 2015, from

Thompson, D. (2015, October 19). 6 Black Students Who Were Suspended For Ridiculous Reasons. Retrieved November 20, 2015, from

What is the School-to-Prison Pipeline? (2015). Retrieved November 20, 2015, from

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