The School to Prison Pipeline, Explained Notes (Eva)


  • Reports show that the juvenile incarceration rate dropped 41% between 1995 and 2010
  • School discipline policies are moving in the opposite direction
    • Out-of-school suspensions have increased by 10% since 2000
  • According to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, black students are three times as likely to be expelled as white students
  • Research in Texas showed that students who had been suspended were much more likely to be held back a grade or drop out of school entirely
  • Trouble at school, especially for older students, can lead to young people’s first contact with the criminal justice system
  • Often, schools themselves are the ones pushing students into the juvenile justice system by having them arrested at school

Concerns About Crime Led Schools to Adopt ‘Zero Tolerance’ Policies

  • In the 1970s, keeping students out of school was much less common–in 1973, fewer than 4% of students were suspended
  • Growing concerns about crime in schools led states and districts to adopt policies that required suspension
  • In 1994, the Gun-Free Schools Act mandated a yearlong out-of-school suspension to any student caught bringing a gun to school
  • The suspension rate for all students has nearly doubled since the 1970s
    • That number has increased even more for black and Hispanic students
  • The zero-tolerance policies were often interpreted very broadly, including instances where schools expelled students for making finger guns
  • While the zero-tolerance policies for violence were growing, schools adopted their own version of the broken windows theory of policing
    • This theory emphasized the importance of cracking down on smaller offenses like skipping class or talking back to teachers
  • From 1997 to 2007, the number of SROs (School Resource Officers, or police officers stationed in schools) increased by nearly a third
  • The purpose of the SROs was to protect the students, not police them
  • From 2011-2012, nearly 97,000 students were arrested in schools by the SROs
    • Most of these were arrests for civil violations or misdemeanors

Schools Have Outsourced Discipline to Juvenile Courts and Officers in Schools

  • By allowing SROs to arrest students, schools are turning that student over to the criminal justice system
    • This makes it much easier for students to get a juvenile record
  • Schools with officers stationed there had five times as many arrests as schools without

Black Students Are More Likely to be Disciplined

  • Black students are suspended or expelled three times more frequently than white students
  • While black students made up 16% of all children enrolled in school from 2011-2012, they made up 31% of all in-school arrests
  • 48% of preschool students suspended more than once are black
  • While several studies have looked at the correlation between race, behavior, and suspension, none of them showed that black students misbehaved at a higher rate than white students
  • A 2002 study showed that white students were more likely to be disciplined for provable offense such as smoking and vandalism, while black students were more likely to be disciplined for subjective reasons such as disrespect
  • In a 2010 study conducted by researchers at Villanova University, data showed that the punitiveness of a school positively correlated with the number of students who were black
    • It did not correlate with the rate of juvenile delinquency or drug use
  • A landmark study in Texas showed that 97% of suspensions were the choice of school administrators, whereas only 3% of students had broken rules that made suspension a required punishment
  • From 2006-2007 in New York City, 51% of students suspended for “profanity” were black and 57% of students suspended for “insubordination” were black
Even When Schools Aren’t Deliberately Sending Students into the Juvenile Justice System, Disciplining Them Makes It More Likely They’ll End Up There
  • A study in Texas showed that students who had been suspended or disciplined were twice as likely to drop out as students who had not
  • 23% of students disciplined in middle or high school ended up in contact with a juvenile probation officer

The Education Department is Pushing Schools to Change Their Discipline Policies

  • The Obama administration encouraged schools to examine the civil rights implications of schools’ discipline policies
  • Even policies that do not mention race, the government said that schools shouldn’t use it if the consequences fall more on students of a particular race


Nelson, Libby, and Dara Lind. “The School to Prison Pipeline, Explained – Justice Policy Institute.” Justice Policy Institute, 2015,

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