Guest columnist

Breaking schools’ rules: school-to-prison pipeline explained

Why everyone should care and work to help stop the funnel and negative effects on society


Schools and prisons should never be in the same sentence; however, the school-to-prison pipeline is real.
For far too many students of color, entering the gateway to incarceration begins with a referral from the classroom to the courtroom. This phenomenon is referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund described this pipeline as “funneling of students out of school and into the streets and the juvenile correction system perpetuates a cycle known as the ‘School-to-Prison-Pipeline,’ depriving children and youth of meaningful opportunities for education, future employment, and participation in our democracy.”
The emergence of the school-to-prison pipeline has been impacted by trends in school disciplinary practices and zero tolerance policies. It is our challenge to dismantle this pipeline and create new pipelines to success for all children. In order to undertake in this endeavor, we must first become knowledgeable on this contemporary civil rights issue.
Students enter into the juvenile justice system through an interaction with a police officer in the community or through a referral from schools.
There are two main contributing factors that have led to the expansion of the school-to-prison pipeline:
1) School disciplinary practices. Nationally, a public student is suspended every second and a half. This equates to 3.3 million children being suspended each year. One study found that 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions were for nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect. Previous studies have shown that even a single suspension can double the odds of that student later dropping out. A simple math equation emerges: missed days in the classroom plus missed learning opportunity equals a decreased likelihood of a student’s ability to successfully complete high school and enter the pipeline to future success through higher education and vocational pursuits.
2) Zero tolerance policies. Zero tolerance policies can also serve as a gateway into the school-to-prison pipeline. Schools are increasingly reliant on zero tolerance as a tool to curb misbehaviors. However, their use may be too drastic. Violence is down at public schools since 1990 — down by 30 percent. Further, less than one percent of all violent crimes happen on school grounds. Therefore, in some instances the enforcement of zero tolerance policies can be far-reaching, therefore increasing the likelihood of interaction with law enforcement and future incarceration.
This pipeline must be dismantled and strategic action is required. Changes in three main categories must be enacted.
First, positive climates must be created that focus on prevention rather than punishment. Students would be better served through interventions informed by restorative practices from school administrators to handle disciplinary actions rather than relying on resource officers and the court system.
Educational programs and counseling services should be increased and made available, along with training and tools for teachers to effectively deal with misbehavior. This holistic approach will aid in ministering to the needs of children while supporting learning goals.
Secondly, the development of clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations is critical, along with consequences to prevent, de-escalate, and address disruptive behaviors. As an adjunct to this, we must improve behavior, increase engagement, and boost achievement. Students must be made aware of what’s expected of them and learn key tools for managing these expectations as a part of life skills development.
Lastly, we need to ensure fairness, equity, and continuous improvement to prevent a reversion to the methods and policies that made the school-to-prison pipeline possible. Disciplinary policies and practices will need continual examination and analysis.
The emergence of the school-to-prison pipeline is detrimental to the success of thousands of children across the United States. Entering the pipeline creates a gateway into the “tangled web of mass incarceration.” Now more than ever we need a vision for dismantling this pipeline in order to support student engagement, learning, and academic success. The wisdom of Sitting Bull offers a new pathway to the future: “Let us put our minds together and see what kind of life we can make for our children.” This a call to action for educators, school administrators, elected officials, parents, and community leaders.
You can learn how you can help to prevent, challenge, and change the school-to-prison pipeline by watching my lecture in the Comcast/NBC Universal Social Justice Series on the School-to-Prison Pipeline.
You can also participate and be part of the solution by visiting #SJSSBeyondTheHashtag, #SchoolToPrisonPipeline, and #RacialJustice.
Through her organization, Planting People Growing Justice Leadership Institute, Dr. Artika Tyner seeks to plant seeds of social change through education, training, and community outreach.


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