How Can We Combat the School to Prison Pipeline?

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Why do I care?

The school to prison pipeline is a problem that has been plaguing the black and brown communities for years. It’s taking young kids and placing them in a system that’s nearly impossible to escape. I am personally invested in this topic because I don’t see this issue being talked about as much as it should be. As a black kid, this hits home for me, and it’s a problem that my community is still struggling with today. So many kids have bright futures but those futures get lost through inequities in the education system. Through this project, I hope I can learn more about the school-to-prison pipeline and find a viable solution to this problem.

Origins of the School to Prison Pipeline

In the 1970s, it was very uncommon for students to be punished with suspensions of expulsions. According to an analysis of Education Department data by the Southern Poverty Law Center, less than 4 percent of students were suspended in the 1973 school year. Since then the suspension rate for all students has almost doubled since the 1970s and has increased even more for black and Hispanic students. The correlation between this rise of suspensions and expulsions is attributed to the zero-tolerance policy and the broken windows theory of policing implemented in the 1990s. In an attempt by school leaders and policymakers to make schools feel safer, the number of offenses in which students could be punished grew while the punishment for these offenses grew much harsher and schools became more militarized. This is defined as the zero-tolerance policy. The broken windows theory was a theory that believes focusing on disciplining small offenses to make residents feel safer and discourage more serious crimes (Nelson & Dara). In the school system, it only translated to more suspensions for actions that previously hadn’t warranted them such as talking back to teachers, skipping class, and any form of disobedience or disruption. Research proves that suspensions and expulsions are clear indicators of future dropouts, unemployment, and incarceration. Another factor of the school-to-prison pipeline was school administrators’ decision to rely on police in the form of School Resource Officers (SROs) stationed in schools. From 1997 to 2007, the number of SROs increased by nearly a third (Nelson & Dara). The intention for increasing the amount of SROs in schools was to prevent school shootings. They were hired to protect students but sadly as often with law enforcement that wasn’t the case. These new policies negatively impacted marginalized groups. Black students are suspended or expelled three times more than their white peers.

The School to Prison Pipeline Today

Today, the school-to-prison pipeline remains an injustice. Data from a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that there were more than 2.7 million student suspensions at public schools in the United States during the 2015-16 academic year. The report also showed that 1.6 million students attended a school with law enforcement officers but not a school counselor. According to the same report in the 2015-16 academic year, schools reported having more than 27,000 school resource officers while only having 23,000 social workers. In the same school year, a study from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights showed that Black students comprised 15% of the student population, but 27% of the students restrained, 23% of the students secluded, and 31% of the students referred to law enforcement. Black males made up 8% of the student enrollment but accounted for 25% of the male students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions and 23% of the male students who were expelled. As you can see from this data racism and prejudice are still fueling the pipeline (Tolley). 

Who is working to help?

Many social justice organizations are working to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline such as the NAACP, Prison Policy Initiative, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), Rooted in Rights, Equal Justice Initiative, and Pew Research Center. The majority of these organizations are focused on providing educational materials and pushing for legal action to stop the school-to-prison pipeline by reforming disciplinary practices. These organizations (specifically ACLU and NAACP) have fought in court cases for the cause. In 2014 the Department of Education and Department of Justice partnered to provide guidelines and tools for schools to improve disciplinary actions (“How Can We Stop The school-to-prison Pipeline?”). The guidelines were divided into three themes. One directive was rather than focusing on punishments for the behavior, focus on preventing the bad behavior from happening. This can be done by training staff and families/communities in ways to help students develop social and emotional conflict resolution skills needed to de-escalate problems that they face in social environments. Also, providing mentors and counselors are needed to help students figure out the underlying causes of misbehavior. The next directive was to ensure clear guidelines for punishments. While it is important to hold students accountable, suspensions and expulsions should be the very last option. Finally, the recommendation was to focus on equity within the classroom. Taking into account the different environments and backgrounds students come from is extremely important in schools when thinking about discipline.

Oakland Unified students have taken to the streets to protest the district’s planned cuts to restorative justice and other programs

What can actions can be taken to help?

From my research, I have developed some action steps to dismantle this oppressive system. First and foremost we need to enforce the guidelines provided to us in 2014 by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice. My personal solution is to have a mass cultural shift in how we run schools and look at punishments within the school system. The first step is to give teachers other options other than suspensions and expulsions to discipline students. In a classroom, there are very few options that the school provides to teachers for disciplining students. Suspensions do more harm than good. When sent home for long periods students lack supervision during the day. Students are going into environments with unknown variables. For example, some could be going to abusive or poverty-ridden homes and school is their only escape. When they are out of school it is safe to assume that they aren’t benefiting from positive peer interactions, adult mentorship, or an in-person education. Suspensions do not help students develop the skills and strategies they need to improve behavior and avoid future problems. Once a student is suspended, they are far more likely to fall into a toxic system of getting in more trouble and being expelled, having to repeat a grade, ending up dropping out of school, and then falling into the juvenile justice system. An alternative is having interventions/therapy sessions with the student and their families, mentors, or trusted adults when a streak of bad behavior is recognized. This is currently being implemented in the Oakland School District as a part of their restorative justice program (OUSD). My next suggestion is to put more of an emphasis on rewarding positive behaviors rather than punishing negative behavior. While I will admit it is important to have ways to hold students accountable it is also important for schools to highlight the good things students are doing. When someone is told over and over again that they are a bad student they will then become a bad student. While on the other hand if we encourage students and support the good things they are doing they are likely to become good productive citizens. 

Personal Action Steps

On a more individual level, we must educate ourselves on the school-to-prison pipeline and be able to recognize it at play within the schools we are at. Voting age citizens should vote for politicians that can and will affect positive changes on this issue. It is important to not just listen to the promises that are made by the people running but also to look at their track record. With just those few actions implemented in schools and society I strongly believe that there will be a mass decrease in not only students falling into the school to prison pipeline but the number of people within the prison population in general.

Educational Resources on the School to Prison Pipeline

Link to complete Bibliography

Thank you so much for reading my project. Please leave a comment of constructive criticism down below. I am hoping that this project can reach many people and cause a change. Once again thank you all 

– Vincent



  1. Great presentation! I definitely think that addressing inequalities in our educational system should be a top priority going forward. Also, do you think that underfunded schools also play a part in the school to prison pipeline?

  2. Hi Vincent! I was shocked to hear that so many students nationwide go to schools with law enforcement but not guidance counselors, which further perpetuates the harmful ways students are disciplined. I also definitely agree that exercising voting rights for politicians can help with both local and national change. Overall, great project!

  3. Great job Vincent! The topic is not widely covered as I have not really seen this on the news or in school very much, so I am glad you chose a topic that needed this kind of spotlight. Great job with how you presented the topic and the visuals just gave so much to the overall subject. It really immersed me into your topic and the programs you gave are very useful and effective. I really enjoyed what you did and how you did it, what an amazing job!

  4. Hi Vincent! You did an amazing job on your project! This is such a complicated and intricate topic, but you beautifully broke it down so that it was easy to understand and gave some meaningful solutions to the problem. My school has gotten rid of detention and instead focuses on communication and learning why what you did was wrong. This has worked great for my school, with very few people ever doing anything harmful or worthy of severe punishment, like suspension. I would definitely encourage other schools to try to implement this technique as a way to rehabilitate instead of punishing,

  5. Great presentation Vincent. I really enjoyed how you explained the problem and possible solutions to this problem. Like you this problem hits close to home for me as a young black man. My main question is do you think restorative justice can be implemented in every school system nationwide and function? But overall awesome presentation!

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