In the 19th century, public education advocate Horace Mann remarked that school would be the great equalizer of men. Never could he have imagined that by the 21st century, public schools would serve as a pipeline to prison for some of our nation’s youth. The “school-to-prison pipeline” was first recognized in the 1990s as an unintended consequence of many school districts adopting a zero tolerance policy toward disobedience in the classroom.
During the late 1980s and 1990s, Americans’ overall tolerance with crime and delinquency began to wane. In response, states began to implement harsher criminal sanctions, such as “three strikes and you’re out” laws. This growing intolerance and increased stringency trickled down to the disciplinary policies enacted by school districts across America.
In the decades since, the consequences of lessened tolerance for disobedience led to a dramatic change in how schools responded to student disobedience. In the corresponding decades that followed, many students, particularly minorities, have been unnecessarily displaced from their school environments and placed on a track for greater risk of exposure to the juvenile or adult criminal justice system. What once was a minor schoolyard infraction or a series of them has been ratcheted up to become grounds for immediate suspension and expulsion. Simultaneously, while school districts were adopting these more stringent disciplinary rules, they were also extracting from their educational budgets fiscal support to expand the police presence on school campuses. Collectively, these actions culminated in a substantially increased likelihood that students, especially those who are poor and non-white, would be exposed to contact with police and the justice system. These contacts figuratively and symbolically begin the criminalization process for many youth.
This risk is not equally shared across different student populations. On the contrary, there is an abundance of evidence that “zero tolerance” policies disproportionately impact lower income and non-white students. It is also a major factor behind the racial disproportionality we see in the prison system today. Study after study shows that Black students are disproportionately more likely to experience school disciplinary actions compared to other student groups. For example, in the 2017-2018 school year Black students comprised 15 percent of the K-12 student population but accounted for 37 percent of the expulsions. In contrast, Whites students made up 47 percent of K-12 students but had an expulsion percentage lower than its representation at just under 38 percent. These statistics are mimicked in the nation’s prison population, with Blacks making up roughly 33 percent of incarcerated adults despite compromising roughly only 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Questions abound as to why poor and non-white students are especially vulnerable to this phenomenon. Quick answers want to place the blame on teachers and the possible implicit biases they may carry when interacting with students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. There is some support for this as a contributing cause for the discrepancies. Research controlling for the possible influences of school setting indicate that teachers are rather equitable in their distribution of punishments across racial categories when it comes to disciplining a student’s initial infraction. It is the disciplinary action meted out upon subsequent student infractions when we start to see a student’s race influencing perception and decisions on appropriate punishment. This reality is not lost on Black mothers. In a study of Black mothers from middle and upper class backgrounds, mothers reported viewing educators as possible threats to their children, alongside the police and other authorities. The perception was that educators see Black children only through their racial identity and all the cultural stereotypes that applied.
Increased spending on diversity training among public educators is an excellent approach to addressing these discrepancies in outcomes. Nevertheless, the school-to- prison pipeline cannot be fully understood without considering the systemic problems that “zero tolerance” policies present for schools that are underfunded and under-resourced. Such schools, which disproportionately serve students from non-white student populations, have become overly reliant on “zero tolerance” policies as a means to control overcrowded classrooms with considerable student and teacher turnover. In these settings, research indicates that Black students are considerably more likely to have their behavior characterized as problematic and deemed worthy of formal disciplinary action.
It is understood that students that face more formalized disciplinary action miss out on important attendance, which subsequently affects academic performance, thereby diminishing minority students’ future opportunities and self-esteem. Additionally, the increased use of police officers in school hallways to enforce order exacerbates the problem by creating antagonistic rather than conducive learning environments that could redirect misbehavior.
The school-to-prison pipeline cannot be sufficiently addressed by simply containing the possible influence of implicit bias among educators. Instead, the elimination of disciplinary policies like “zero tolerance” will reduce the chances that shortsighted disciplinary responses based in implicit bias are an option of first resort for school officials. This action does not rid schools of the means to discipline student infractions. It also will not resolve the issue of over representation amongst Black males in our nation’s prisons, but it will significantly reduce the contribution that our schools are making to the problem. The monies saved from future incarcerations could be better used if we reimagined support for schools to engage in more constructive alternatives to disciplining student infractions.