School-to-Prison Pipeline


School to Prison Pipeline 101

The School to Prison Pipeline refers to the interaction of national, state, and local policies and practices that serve to push young people, disproportionately youth of color, out of schools and into the criminal justice system. Schools introduce youth into the juvenile justice system through “zero tolerance policies,"or the involvement of police in minor disciplinary incidents, and the use of policing tactics like pat-downs and frisks, metal detectors, and referrals to the juvenile justice system. Schools also exclude youth of color from the learning environment through suspensions, expulsions, racialized tracking into special education and remedial programs, and standardized, "high-stakes” testing.


Policing and Punishment in K-12 Schooling

Historically, U.S. schools have been sites for various kinds of punishment, often especially directed at youth of color. Native children for instance, were taken to special schools and subjected to physical abuse and punishment if they spoke any language other than English or engaged in traditional cultural behaviors and practices. Attempts to punish or retaliate against students who tried to seek equal and desegregated education sometimes escalated into extreme violence from community members, with support from school administrators.

Today, school discipline serves a vital role in continuing to ensure that too many youth of color do not have stable access to education. African-American, Latino and Native youth are particularly at high risk of in-school discipline, suspension and expulsion. Many disciplinary actions are based on how teachers perceive students as misbehaving, or having poor attitudes – both perceptions that can be shaped by racism.

Three key concepts are discussed below:

Zero Tolerance Policies–Zero tolerance policies refer to harsh forms of discipline that are supposedly meant to prevent violence in schools. Most zero tolerance policies in the U.S. originated through or since the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994, which makes it mandatory for schools that receive money from the federal government to expel any child who brings a gun to school. However, the concept of zero tolerance has expanded to involve more extreme discipline, particularly expulsions, for more minor offenses, and for non-violent behavior.

Suspensions and Expulsions–In-school suspensions and expulsions are “racially disproportionate” or unequally distributed on the basis of race. Youth of color are more likely to be sent to the principal’s office by teachers, based on the perception that their behavior is worse. Teachers may particularly describe youth of color as “combative, argumentative, or defiant of authority.” Teachers are also more likely to be white and of a higher socio-economic status than their students.

Tracking –Racialized tracking refers to the diversion of young people of color into particular education programs, such as “remedial” education, often based on the stereotype that youth of color are less intelligent or capable of learning. In recent decades, tracking has sometimes taken the form of the misdiagnosis of youth of color as having disabilities that are not actually present. This practice is sometimes known as the “medicalization of deviance.” Even when appropriate, remedial and special education programs still often work poorly for the students in them because they often do not have enough funding or resources, particularly in poorer schools.

Sexual Abuse, Exploitation & Harassment Contribute to Drop-Out, Expulsion and Incarceration Rates for Girls of Color 

How does sexual abuse of girls relate to incarceration? –Girls who experience sexual abuse in childhood are at higher risk for youth and adult incarceration in prisons and jails. More than 70% of girls who enter the juvenile justice system report a history of physical or sexual abuse, or both. Girls who experience sexual abuse become vulnerable in educational and legal systems in a number of ways. Girls may have difficulty getting to school or staying in school due to disrupted home life, cycling through foster systems, or physical injuries. Sexual abuse victims experience traumatic stress, which can cause difficulty with concentration and learning, behavioral and coping difficulties, or emotional distress while in school, as well as increased likelihood of substance abuse as a coping mechanism. When school systems are insensitive or indifferent to the source of the problem, sexual abuse victims are likely to be further punished or stigmatized for truancy, discipline problems, or poor academic performance. Sexual abuse victims are therefore more likely to experience suspensions, expulsions, and discipline.

Why are girls of color especially endangered?– While estimates vary, most studies indicate that girls are between 3-5 times as likely to be sexually abused as boys, within and across racial groups. Girls of color experience higher rates of sexual abuse than white girls. Rates are higher for Black and Latina girls, and particularly stark for Native girls,,who are nearly twice as likely to experience sexual abuse compared to other groups. 
The intersection of vulnerabilities, based on racial tracking and punitive discipline in schools, and increased likelihood of sexual victimization as compared to both white girls, and boys across racial groups, make girls of color who experience sexual abuse extraordinarily vulnerable to educational discrimination, and juvenile incarceration.