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School to Prison Pipeline

The School To Prison Pipeline

Updated: Feb 1

What is the School To Prison Pipeline?

The School To Prison Pipeline. It’s a charming little name hiding a deep, dark secret. Racial justice and the myriad of issues surrounding our understanding and conception of race in this country have been at the forefront of our news cycles for years now. The roots of what would eventually become known as the School To Prison Pipeline were planted in the 1970s.

An illustration of children in a line going from school to prison. (Image Source:
An illustration of children in a line going from school to prison. (Image Source:

Historical Context

Few students (less than four percent in 1973) were sent to out-of-school home suspension, though increasing awareness or fear of crime and violence in schools was growing. This tension applied pressure to state politicians and school districts to adopt policies that necessitated the suspension of students who had a perceived violation of proper conduct. In 1994, the Gun-Free Schools Act was passed, thus striking into law a year-long suspension out of school for any student who was caught bearing a weapon in school. It was called ‘zero-tolerance.’

The Devastating Results

Zero-tolerance policies directly resulted in not only a doubling of suspensions since the 1970s, but even downright expulsion. Proponents of these policies may argue this is a good thing—we have to protect our children, right? Critics would say back, however, that these policies are broad, subject to interpretation, and disproportionately affect Black, low-income, and other minority students.

Case Studies

In Maryland, 2013: A seven-year-old boy was suspended after he chewed a PopTart pastry into a gun shape and aimed the pastry at a friend, apparently endangering his life by way of sugar paste. In 2014, an Ohio boy in the fifth grade was suspended after he pushed his fingers together in the shape of a gun and pretended to shoot one of his classmates.


Part of the problem lies in a classic criminological theory known as ‘the broken windows theory.’ The basic idea is as follows. Neighborhoods with broken windows, loitering, prostitution, etc., are neighborhoods that are uncared for and in a state of decay. Small crimes, such as sex work, smoking marijuana, or other minor offenses, should be the focus of police work, which, in theory, will prevent larger crimes. It was meant to empower local communities, allow the public to take back their spaces, and have police officers prevent major crimes by cracking down on smaller ones. Unfortunately, theory is only ever as good as results.

Impact on Students

A group of teenagers in a juvenile detention center in Maricopa County, AZ. (Image Source: Mike Fiala/Hulton Archive via Getty)
A group of teenagers in a juvenile detention center in Maricopa County, AZ. (Image Source: Mike Fiala/Hulton Archive via Getty)

Though the ‘Broken Windows’ theory was designed to be applied on a larger scale to neighborhoods and communities, its basic principles were being utilized in an already strained and racially separated system: public school.

Racial disparities in things like access to education, access to services, and even quality of education had been evident for all to see for decades by this time, but now the problem was compounded. Zero-tolerance policies in schools and suspensions from education disproportionately targeted lower-class and minority school systems.

Child ‘offenders’ are routinely taken out of classes for minor infractions or disorderly conduct and transported by police to detention facilities. Lining the hallways of schools and even stationed in classrooms, police officers with guns on their hips observe children wearing Mario-themed backpacks or with Hello Kitty notebooks tucked under their arms as they walk by. Rather than serving as protection, these officers are here to ensure order is maintained and damned be the consequences for the children they are ostensibly there to protect.

Abuse of Power

In Louisiana, according to Learning for Justice, a complaint was filed with the United States Department of Justice, noting, “school officials have given armed police ‘unfettered authority to stop, frisk, detain, question, search and arrest schoolchildren on and off school grounds.’”

In treating children like criminals regardless of whether they have committed an offense or not, we teach them that they are only as good as the system that tells them so. When we push children out of school for minor infractions- some as innocent as forgetting pencils- they end up in the prison system years later as actual criminals.

Labor Exploitation

A young boy staring out from a jail cell. (Image Source:
A young boy staring out from a jail cell. (Image Source:

This is profitable for states, as the private prison system has boomed in recent decades, making a tidy profit off the labor of incarcerated individuals. Not all of these hardened criminals are adults, either. A healthy number of these so-called ‘crooks’ are children. As Tracie R. Porter from the Arkansas Law Review points out, “‘...The industry of kids-for-cash became so pervasive that [d]etention center workers were told in advance how many juveniles to expect at the end of each day—even before hearings to determine their innocence or guilt.’ Children appeared before the judges following minor crimes such as mocking an assistant principal on a social media page...and stealing DVDs from Wal-Mart.”

The need for cheap labor and shrinking government budgets in the face of recessions, pandemics, or even shifts in public attitude means that individuals in prison systems are being used, essentially, as slave labor for as long as their term limits apply. Students being expelled or downright arrested in school equals free labor. Once they are released from whatever minor offense they caused, it is more likely that they will re-offend and end up back in prison than not.


The Bureau of Justice’s sobering statistics states that two-thirds of released prisoners are arrested again within three years. Data from 2015, according to the Sentencing Project, shows that black students are five times more likely than white students to be incarcerated. With the ever-present tension of racism in our nation, the way we dehumanize black bodies, the way we heavily police neighborhoods and school systems with black students, is it any wonder the outcome for these kids is less than stellar? We are funneling children into a get-rich-quick scheme and pretending that it is somehow in their best interest. Broken windows may be one thing, but we are breaking people.


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