Back to What's New

5 ways to end the school to prison pipeline

Whether it be a result of increased police presence at schools, or the overuse of suspensions and expulsions, students across the nation are increasingly coming into contact with the criminal justice system through their schools.

It’s gotten so bad that a simple dress code violation, bringing nail clippers to school, or a snippy comment in class could get you suspended.

Youth advocates coined the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” to describe school policies and institutional practices that funnel students out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system—and it’s caught on. Today, political giants like President Obama, the ACLU and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, have all called for an end to it.

At the core of the school-to-prison pipeline are punitive, “zero-tolerance” school discipline policies that disproportionately affect students of color and those with disabilities.

African American students are suspended at a rate three times higher than white students, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, and one in four boys of color who also have a disability receive an out-of-school suspension.

The “pipeline” isn’t just hurting students—it’s also expensive for taxpayers. The average cost of incarcerating someone in California in 2013-14 was $62,396 compared to the $9,194 the state spent per pupil in k-12 schools, according to Californians for Safety and Justice.

So what can schools do to disrupt this pipeline and keep students in classrooms and out of the criminal justice system, both saving our country money and improving the lives of young people?

California has been a national leader in banning school suspensions, so we asked students and educators there what they think could shut down the school to prison pipeline once and for all. Here’s what they suggested:

Police should be a last resort, not a first response

Unfortunately, it’s not so uncommon to hear of school-based police officers resorting to violence with students, like in the case of Joshua Kehm, the Texas officer who lifted and slammed 12-year-old Janissa Valdez to the ground during a confrontation she was having with another student.

Maryjane Davis, 17, of Fresno knows how it feels to be treated like a criminal at school. When a classmate picked a fight, striking her twice, Davis swung back. Davis claimed self defense, but the school officer who broke up the fight arrested her and sent her straight to juvenile hall—without, she said, even calling her parents first. Davis now believes something should be done to keep other students from experiencing a similar fate.

“Schools should actually just sit down with their students and talk things out before just quickly arresting them and sending them over to juvie,” she said. “If you actually treat [the student] like an adult and talk to them with respect, they’re going to talk to you with respect and treat you as you want to be treated.”

Improve the staff-to-student ratio

Being removed from school and getting locked up are correlated. In the Bay Area, about two-thirds of Oakland Unified School District students who drop out eventually get tangled up in the criminal justice system.

And while schools in California have increasingly been moving away from punitive policies and adopting conflict resolution practices, there aren’t always enough counselors or staff to implement the programs that would keep kids on campus. According to the California Department of Education, California ranks dead last in the nation with a ratio of 945 students per 1 counselor, compared to the national average of 477 to 1.

“We only have one therapist that comes on campus like twice a week to talk to all the kids that have issues, and that doesn’t really work out,” said 15-year-old Imani Salter of Oakland. “We have counselors but they only [give us] educational information. Even if [schools] can’t have a therapist on campus, they need to find a way for [both] parents and students to get access to some type of counseling.”

Put less emphasis on standardized tests

Low standardized test scores can result in schools losing funding and even being shut down entirely. But reliance on standardized tests has also been shown to contribute directly to the school-to-prison pipeline.

When classrooms are reduced to “test prep centers” where success is determined primarily by test scores, students are more likely to disengage from their education altogether, according to a study by Fairtest. Also, high school exit exams have been linked to increases in school dropout and juvenile incarceration rates.

“We’re not judged (as teachers) by how well we develop the individual (student), we’re judged on how well we can prepare these kids to take these math and language-arts tests,” said Sergio de Alba, a sixth-grade teacher in Los Banos, Calif. “We need to invest in the whole student… It needs to be about growing as an individual.”

Provide more college and career-prep 

Being unprepared for life after high school can have dire consequences for students, leading to dropout and affecting college and job retention rates. Yet only about half of high school graduates complete a college-prep or career-readiness course, according to a recent study by The Education Trust.

When these resources aren’t offered at school, students from disadvantaged backgrounds without good support systems at home are less likely to pursue a higher education or identify career opportunities.

“I believe if students start to feel they have a purpose or goal they want to attain and are educated on how to achieve that, they will more likely pursue a higher education, whether that is community college, university or a vocational program,” said Stefanie de la Cruz, a college and financial aid counselor for the Merced Union High School District.

More alternative discipline practices

Research shows that taking students out of class hurts them academically in the long-term, and schools all over the nation have responded by employing alternative forms of discipline to help their kids stay in school, and on track.

One of the alternatives that has seemed to work is restorative justice, which allows students to resolve conflict through conversations that may include the student, the person the student hurt and their teachers and parents.

Dr. Brenda Lewis, assistant superintendent at Kern High School District, has seen the program do wonders for her schools.

“Since 2010, when we initiated our exploration of and planning for Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports and Restorative Practices, Kern High School District has reduced the total expulsions from 1,096 students in 2010-2011, to 66 total expulsions in school-year 2014-2015,” Lewis said.

With additional reporting by Myles Bess and Daniel Jimenez.

This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard Journalism Fellowship.

Stay Connected