The school-to-prison pipeline, explained

The school-to-prison pipeline, explained

November 30, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


There’s this phrase you hear in the news
sometimes: the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s shorthand for how schools are funneling
students — especially black students — into the criminal justice system. It started in the 90s, when schools responded
to fears about crime with zero tolerance policies, which mandated suspensions and expulsions
for certain violations. They also cracked down on little things like
talking back or uniform violations. But as a result, out-of-school suspensions
have doubled since the 1970s, and keep increasing even though juvenile crime rates have now
been dropping for years. Around the same time, the number of police
officers stationed full-time inside schools has increased — by a third between 1997
and 2007. Ostensibly, they were there to prevent mass
school shootings like the one at Columbine. But they end up being a way for schools to
basically outsource discipline to the police. Schools with officers have five times as many
arrests for “disorderly conduct” as schools without them. Sometimes the results are shocking. But the less visible effect is that schools
are feeding the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Consider the fact that schools are more likely
to have an officer on their campus if their student population is more than 50% black. You might assume that’s because there’s
more crime at these schools. But although students at policed schools are more likely
to be arrested, they’re not actually more likely to be charged
in court for weapons, drugs, alcohol, or assault, at least according to one study. During the 2010-2011 school year, one in six
public school students in the U.S. were black, but they accounted for one in three arrests
at school. Same goes for other forms of school discipline.
Black students are suspended or expelled three times more frequently than white students. It actually begins in preschool. 18% of preschoolers
are black, but of all preschoolers suspended more than once, 48% are black. Studies show that differences in behavior
can’t fully account for these disparities. Black students and white students are sent
to the principal’s office at similar rates, but black students are more likely to end
up with a serious punishment. One study found that white students are more
likely to be suspended for provable offenses like smoking or vandalism, while black students are more likely to be
suspended for subjective reasons like talking back or insubordination. Students who are suspended in school are more
likely to later drop out or get arrested, so the federal government is asking schools
to make suspension and expulsion the absolute last resort. In Oakland, California, public schools are
trying something called restorative justice, where both parties to a conflict talk it out
with a counselor, instead of relying on punishment. The results are pretty encouraging— in the
past ten years, chronic absenteeism is down and graduation rate are up in the schools
that have tried it. Other cities and districts are also trying
new policies — so that if their students end up in the criminal justice system, it
won’t be because the schools pushed them there.