The School to Prison Pipeline
BY LUCIA SABATELLI '26
School. A word associated with learning, teachers, and friends. Yet there is an underlying gateway between education and a prison sentence - the school-to-prison pipeline. The school-to-prison pipeline is a systemic trend, in which students, mainly those who are Black, Brown, or possessing a disability, are criminalized for misdemeanors at school, channeling students from the classroom into the justice system. They face drastic punishments, including expulsion or suspension for dress code violations or chronic absences. Ultimately, the pipeline is prevalent in underfunded public schools across the United States. However, with measures to constructively address students’ behavior, growth can occur.
Overall, the pipeline demonstrates trends of disproportionately targeting minorities through the zero tolerance policy. Although 18% of students enrolled in public schools identify as Black, they make up a startling 48% of students suspended more than once, implying an inherent bias embedded in the system. Further, students with learning disabilities constitute only 8.6% of the student body, yet they are 32% of the juvenile detention population. Regardless of students’ circumstances, the policies are imposed by administration, creating a culture of severe punishment for minor misdemeanors. Under school policies, students face risk of expulsion or suspension for nonviolent offenses, including unexcused absences or dress code infractions. In Springfield, Massachusetts, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reports students as young as eleven years old have been “arrested for showing disrespect to authority figures and for "acting out" in ways that may be disruptive (banging on lockers, throwing a cheeseburger or snowball, using the "f" word)”. Zero tolerance rules create barriers for students, as there is a lack of educational resources, such as textbooks or teacher interactions, when suspension or a juvenile detention sentence occurs. The intolerance combined with these insufficient resources creates a cycle demotivating students to pursue their education, resulting in a disproportionate amount of dropouts. The school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately affects minorities, and the subsequent criminal record from juvenile sentences leaves lasting impacts. Youth with criminal records may lose their eligibility for financial aid, creating further barriers towards a higher education and wages. Therefore, the school-to-prison pipeline stems from zero tolerance policies disproportionately affecting minority students, hindering their education.
Next, the school-to-prison pipeline induces signs of hopelessness and depression in those affected, and needless to say incarceration or expulsion will enhance these conditions. However, with improved training, a safer environment, and responsive strategies, the diversion of the pipeline is possible. First, school resource officers tend to increase arrests for low level offenses. The ACLU found that “a large percentage of school-based arrests are for "public order offenses"—conduct that might be disruptive or disrespectful, but that most people would never consider criminal”. Thus, one can minimize said frequency by eliminating the presence of school-based officers, to prevent the criminalization of students for minor offenses. Alternatively, strategies such as Social Emotional Learning (SEL), a program providing mental-health and wellness support for students, provide a space for open communication, allowing for positive growth in the long run. Finally, restorative justice strategies, such as community service, can re-engage the chronically absent or repeat offenders, preventing students from being funneled into incarceration.
Ultimately, the school-to-prison pipeline is deeply embedded into the public school system, greatly impacting minority youth. The path towards equality requires the complete destruction of harmful practices, including zero tolerance policies for minor infractions or a high concentration of school resource officers in underfunded schools. Instead, support counselors should be available to help rather than punish students. It is vital to recognize the patterns ingrained in the system and promote restorative strategies, to build a better future for students across the United States.