Current Events in Education

The Case for Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Guest Writer: Maya El-Darzi
Maya El-Darzi has a bachelor’s degree in both political science and history, as well as a master’s degree in history and teaching. Maya currently teaches World and US History at a local high school.
Security guards, cameras, and inflexible discipline codes – these elements constitute the zero-tolerance behavioral policy schools have adopted across the nation. Yet instead of increasing school safety, these measures have inflated the school-to-prison pipeline, a phenomenon that creates a link “between school behavior and the juvenile or criminal justice systems.”[1] In turn, the unfortunate victims of this phenomenon are minority students, specifically African Americans. Academics have suggested multiple strategies to end the school-to-prison pipeline, including implementing restorative justice (RJ) practices and cultural competence workshops.
Under both programs, the student is not ostracized or treated like a criminal. Instead, the student is given the opportunity to reflect on their needs and actions and is understood by teachers, administration, family, and the community. By adopting RJ and cultural competence programs, schools hope to not only alleviate the school-to-prison pipeline but also transform school culture into a healthy and effective learning environment.
Zero-Tolerance Policy
On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered Columbine High School and murdered fifteen individuals while injuring twenty-four people. In response to this tragedy, schools across the United States adopted a zero-tolerance policy, a practice in which school officials simply “criminalize minor infractions of school rules.”[2] Schools were now required to give students consistent punishment when certain rules were broken, regardless of the circumstances. Eliminating certain undesirable behaviors early on can possibly prevent serious crime later in life. Hand in hand with such strict measures, police presence in schools also increased. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the number of school resource officers increased by 38 percent, and school security guards increased 27 percent, between 1997 and 2007.[3]
Black students are suspended and expelled three times more than white students Click To Tweet
But despite strict rules and increased security, there has been overwhelming evidence that minority students – particularly African Americans – face disproportionately harsher punishments than their white counterparts in public schools due to zero-tolerance policy. Black students are suspended and expelled three times more than white students.[4] In fact, while African American males account for 17 percent of all school-aged youth, they also account for 37 percent of suspensions, and 35 percent of all expulsions.[5]  Furthermore, African American male students represent approximately 31 percent of school-related arrests.[6]
The Pipeline to Prison
Scholars have pointed out how such zero-tolerance policies have contributed to the school-to-prison pipeline. For every child that is pushed out of school, there is an increased risk of school dropout and entry into the criminal justice system. Research has consistently “identified suspension and expulsion as risk factors” for school dropouts.[7] Students expelled from schools have difficulties enrolling in new schools. States are not required to offer alternative educational programs for youth who have been pushed out of traditional schools. In addition, colleges and universities have criminal history questions in their applications, which can decrease an applicant’s chance at acceptance. Financial aid is also limited to students with a criminal record.
Indeed, students sent to Juvenile incarceration decreases the likelihood of graduating from high school. At least 60 percent of African American males, who do not earn a diploma, will go to prison.[8] Students who are sent to jail as juveniles are 15 percent more likely to be incarcerated as adults for violent crimes, and 14 percent more likely to be incarcerated as adults for property crimes.[9] In light of these numbers, California in 2014 spent at least $62,000 on each prison inmate, ensuring each incarcerated individual receives adequate housing, food, and medical care.[10] On the other hand, California spent $9,200 on each K-12 student.[11] Instead of tax dollars being invested in schools “which will provide the government and society a greater return on investment,” they are being spent on prisons and jails “which do not yield such returns.”[12]
Restorative Justice
Educators and academics alike call for the end of zero-tolerance policies, and the implementation of restorative justice programs. RJ is “an approach to discipline that engages all parties in a balanced practice that brings together all people impacted by an issue or behavior.”[13]  In other words, the practice utilizes existing relationships among students, teachers, and school administration, to resolve a conflict. All individuals involved may work to achieve some type of resolution through peacemaking circles, a peer jury, or mediated meetings.[14] A student is given a chance to not only communicate their concerns but to also listen to other points of views. Furthermore, this process is conducted within a designated “safe space,” which encourages all parties, especially students, to be genuine in their communication. Upon resolving a conflict, the student is then reintegrated back into the learning environment.
RJ practice has been implemented successfully in several schools – including those in the Oakland Unified School District in California. Schools that implemented such methods reached a 60 percent graduation rate, compared to 7 percent in non-RJ schools.[15] Reading levels in ninth grade increased by 128 percent in RJ schools, versus 11 percent in non-RJ schools.[16] Chronic absences decreased by 24 percent, while four-year drop out rates decreased by 56 percent, in RJ schools.[17] On the other hand, non-RJ schools saw a 62 percent increase in chronic absences and a mere 17 percent decrease in four-year drop out rates.[18]
Yet despite the many successes in schools, RJ has received many criticisms. LAUSD has been “nationally hailed by the White House and others for its leadership” in banning “suspensions and expulsions.”[19] But several teachers across the district “are reeling from unruly students who are escaping consequences for their actions.”[20] According to Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, there is simply “not enough staffing to make [restorative justice programs] work.”[21] Without adequate resources, the student is simply “coddled” by teachers and administrators, instead of truly understanding the impact of their disruptive behavior. As a result, teachers are “overwhelmed by what they consider ineffective responses to students who push, threaten, and curse them.”[22]
But as stated before, implementing RJ workshops remains a practical method in alleviating the school-to-prison pipeline. In fact, the school district can set aside “a certain amount of funding” for “school-wide training [and] teacher overtime.”[23] In addition, rather than add to the workload of teachers, school districts should also provide a full-time RJ coordinator for each school. In the event a school district is unable to do so, the school can “reassign a person within the [school] to that role.”[24] In order for RJ practices, in particular, to be effective, schools must also include “scheduling a time… to check-in” with students who have completed the process in regards to their behavior.[25] Schools can even create a tracker or continue with less formal checks.
Cultural Competency Programs
In addition, in order to end the target on African American students, school personnel “need to be trained in cultural competence.”[26] According to scholars, the key problem related to such racial disparities under zero-tolerance policies focuses on the misinterpretation of black adolescent behavior. White teachers are more inclined “to interpret the highly active and vocal behavior of African American adolescents as ‘dangerous’ or ‘threatening.’”[27] But with cultural competence programs, teachers and administrators learn “the customs, values, and communication codes of various racial and ethnic groups.”[28] Through this training, teachers can identify and understand student’s behaviors, and be mindful of their words and actions when communicating with these specific students and their families. In this manner, both the teacher and the student are understood, and misunderstandings that result in harsh disciplinary actions can decrease, and be avoided.
In 2012, researchers conducted a “social skills intervention” with six African American middle school students with behavioral issues.[29] In order to make instruction culturally relevant, the teacher used “situations, materials, and practice exercises that reflected the students’ experiences and backgrounds.”[30] After three to seven weeks, “a single-subject multiple probe design showed positive results for all students,” with the greatest returns occurring for students “with the highest level of participation.”[31] As seen in this instance, the teacher carefully tied the lesson to cultural elements familiar to students. In turn, students understood the material – behavioral expectations and norms. And both the teacher and the students were able to communicate clearly and effectively.
The school-to-prison pipeline is a complex phenomenon involving multiple factors. Yet perhaps the best policies to implement focus on replacing zero-tolerance disciplinary policing with RJ programs as well as requiring culture competence training for teachers. The factors needed for such programs to be successful, such as administration, teachers, students, and expertise, are part of the school and school district itself. In turn, these sources are easier to access and control. Schools can implement RJ and cultural competence strategies gradually into existing policies. All in all, through these policies, it is hoped that the school-to-prison pipeline will be alleviated, and students are given a chance for a successful future.
Bouchein, Meredith. “School to Prison Pipeline: A Comparison in Discipline Policy betweenMaryland and Texas Public Schools.” Rep. School to Prison Pipeline: A Comparison inDiscipline Policy between Maryland and Texas Public Schools, August 2015.
Choudhry, Izza. “High School Dropouts More Likely to Go to Prison.” The Spotlight, March 19, 2018.
Copeland, Camden. “The Dangers of the “School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Wharton University ofPennsylvania Public Policy Initiative. August 13, 2015.
Fader, Jamie J., Brian Lockwood, Victoria L. Schall, and Benjamin Stokes. “A PromisingApproach to Narrowing the School-to-Prison Pipeline: The WISE Arrest Diversion Program.”Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 13, no. 2 (2014): 123–42.
Heitzeg, Nancy A. “Education or Incarceration: Zero Tolerance Policies and the School to PrisonPipeline.” Forum on Public Policy, 2009,
Madeleine Cousineau. “Institutional Racism and the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Paper presented at 105th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. Atlanta, Georgia. August14-17, 2020,
Oakland Unified School District. “Restorative Justice in Oakland Schools Implementation andImpacts 2014.” Rep. Restorative Justice in Oakland Schools Implementation and Impacts2014, 2014.
“School-to-Prison Pipeline.” American Civil Liberties Union. Accessed April 17, 2020.
“School-Wide Restorative Practices: Step by Step.” Denver School-Based Restorative PracticesProject. Last modified 2017. Accessed on 2020.
“The Origins of the School to Prison Pipeline.” The Advancement Project. Last modified in2016. Accessed 2018.
Simmons-Reed, Evette A., and Gwendolyn Cartledge. “School Discipline Disproportionality:Culturally Competent Interventions for African American Males.” Interdisciplinary Journalof Teaching and Learning 4, no. 2 (2014).
Watanabe, Teresa, and Howard Blume. “Why some LAUSD Teachers are Balking at a NewApproach to Discipline Problems.” The Los Angeles Times. November 7, 2015.
[1] “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” American Civil Liberties Union, accessed April 17, 2020,
[2] Ibid
[3] “The Origins of the School to Prison Pipeline,” The Advancement Project, last modified in 2016, accessed 2018,
[4] “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” American Civil Liberties Union.
[5] Nancy Heitzeg, “Education or Incarceration: Zero Tolerance Policies and the School to Prison Pipeline,” Forum on Public Policy, 2009,
[6] “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” American Civil Liberties Union.
[7] Jaime J. Fader, Brian Lockwood, Victoria L. Schall, and Benjamin Stokes, “A Promising Approach to Narrowing the School-to-Prison Pipeline: The WISE Arrest Diversion Program,” Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 13, no. 2 (2014): 3,
[8] “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” American Civil Liberties Union.
[9] Izza Choudhry, “High School Dropouts More Likely to Go to Prison,” The Spotlight, March 19, 2018,
[10] Camden Copeland, “The Dangers of the “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” Wharton University of Pennsylvania Public Policy Initiative, August 13, 2015,
[11] Ibid
[12] Ibid
[13] Meredith Bouchein, “School to Prison Pipeline: A Comparison in Discipline Policy between Maryland and Texas Public Schools,” Rep. School to Prison Pipeline: A Comparison in Discipline Policy between Maryland and Texas Public Schools, August 2015,
[14] Ibid
[15] Oakland Unified School District, “Restorative Justice in Oakland Schools Implementation and Impacts 2014,” Rep. Restorative Justice in Oakland Schools Implementation and Impacts 2014, 2014,
[16] Ibid
[17] Ibid
[18] Ibid
[19] Teresa Watanabe and Howard Blume, “Why some LAUSD teachers are balking at a new approach to discipline problems,” The Los Angeles Times, November 7, 2015,
[20] Ibid
[21] Ibid
[22] Ibid
[23] “School-Wide Restorative Practices: Step by Step,” Denver School-Based Restorative Practices Project, last modified 2017, accessed on 2020,
[24] Ibid
[25] Ibid
[26] Madeleine Cousineau, “Institutional Racism and the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” Paper presented at 105th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Atlanta, Georgia, August 14-17, 2020,, 8.
[27] Ibid, 7.
[28] Ibid, 8.
[29] Evette A. Simmons-Reed and Gwendolyn Cartledge, “School Discipline Disproportionality: Culturally Competent Interventions for African American Males,” Interdisciplinary Journal of Teaching and Learning 4, no. 2 (2014), 103,
[31] Ibid

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