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June 01, 2014

The Emergence of the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Dr. Artika R. Tyner

For far too many students, entering the gateway to incarceration begins with a referral from the classroom to the courtroom. This phenomenon is referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund described this pipeline as “funneling of students out of school and into the streets and the juvenile correction system perpetuates a cycle known as the ‘School-to-Prison-Pipeline,’ depriving children and youth of meaningful opportunities for education, future employment, and participation in our democracy.” The emergence of the school-to-prison pipeline has been impacted by trends in school disciplinary practices and zero tolerance policies. It is our challenge to dismantle this pipeline and create new pipelines to success for all children. In order to undertake in this endeavor, we must first become knowledgeable on this contemporary civil rights issue. Let’s begin with examining the landscape of America’s classrooms and juvenile justice system.

Students enter into the juvenile justice system through an interaction with a police officer in the community or through a referral from schools. There are two main contributing factors that have led to the expansion of the school-to-prison pipeline:

  1. School disciplinary practices. Nationally, a public student is suspended every second and a half. This equates to 3.3 million children being suspended each year. One study found that 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions were for nonviolent, minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect. Previous studies have shown that even a single suspension can double the odds of that student later dropping out. A simple math equation emerges: missed days in the classroom plus missed learning opportunity equals a decreased likelihood of a student’s ability to successfully complete high school and enter the pipeline to higher education.
  2. Zero tolerance policies. Zero tolerance policies can also serve as a gateway into the school-to-prison pipeline. Schools are increasingly reliant on zero tolerance as a tool to curb misbehaviors. However, their use may be too drastic. Violence is down at public schools since 1990—down by 30 percent. Further, less than one percent of all violent crimes happen on school grounds. Therefore, in some instances the enforcement of zero tolerance policies can be far-reaching, therefore increasing the likelihood of interaction with law enforcement and future incarceration.

Racial Disparities and a Civil Rights Analysis

Both the implementation of school disciplinary practices and zero tolerance policies have a disproportionate impact on students of color. In the context of the school-to-prison pipeline, race matters because children of color are more likely to be referred out of the classroom and receive harsher punishment for their actions. For instance, a black public school student is suspended every four seconds. Although black students made up only 18 percent of students in public schools in 2009–2010, they accounted for 40 percent of students who received one or more out-of-school suspensions. Furthermore, students of color with disabilities are also referred out of the classroom at a disproportionate rate. For example, 1 in 4 African-American students with disabilities are suspended at least once, in comparison to 1 in 11 white students. Moreover, students of color are more likely to be referred to law enforcement for school-related disciplinary matters. Seventy percent of students referred to “in-school” arrests or law enforcement are African-American or Latino.

Racial disparities in administering school disciplinary practices and zero tolerance policies draw into question a need for a civil rights analysis. According to US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, “a significant number of students are removed from class each year—even for minor infractions of school rules—due to exclusionary discipline practices, which disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities.” At face value, the data may appear to simply show that children of color commit more disciplinary infractions and engage in higher rates of violent behavior, and hence enter the school-to-prison pipeline at a higher rate. However, federal research compiled by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) analysis paints a different picture of the experiences of children of color. The research findings show children of color suffering harsher penalties for the same conduct of other students and primarily being referred out of the classroom for behavior that fits into subjective categories like disrespect, disruptive conduct, or insubordination. This data concludes “racial disparities are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color.” Lastly, CRDC investigations found cases were African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently based on race in comparison to similarly situated white children.

Recommendations of Change

In order to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, strategic action must be taken. The Department of Education and Department of Justice have partnered to provide new tools for systemic change. On January 8, 2014, the agencies jointly issued federal guidelines to advise schools on how to improve school climate and discipline: Guiding Principles—A Resource Guide for Improving School Climate and Discipline. The guidelines are categorized into three main themes:

  1. Create positive climates and focus on prevention
  2. Develop clear, appropriate, and consistent expectations and consequences to address disruptive student behaviors (improve behavior, increase engagement, boost achievement)
  3. Ensure fairness, equity, and continuous improvement

President Barack Obama has also developed a vision for eradicating the racial disparities associated with the education and justice systems through his initiative called My Brother’s Keeper. His efforts have elevated national attention on the challenges negatively impacting young men of color both inside and outside the classroom. The mission of the program is to create opportunities for boys and young men of color to improve their educational and life outcomes. President Obama is collaborating with key stakeholders in the philanthropic and business communities to invest at least $200 million dollars into exploring evidence-based practices for creating new pipelines to success over the next five years.


In closing, the emergence of the school-to-prison pipeline is detrimental to the success of thousands of children across the United States. Entering the pipeline creates a gateway into the tangled web of mass incarceration. Now more than ever we need a vision for dismantling this pipeline in order to support student engagement, learning, and academic success.

For more information about the school-to-prison pipeline and to discover ways you can aid in dismantling the pipeline, please attend the upcoming town hall forum at 2014 ABA Annual Meeting in Boston, MA. The town hall forum is sponsored by the ABA Coalition on Racial and Ethnic Justice, Criminal Justice Section, and the Council on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline.

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Dr. Artika R. Tyner


Dr. Artika R. Tyner is a speaker, writer, and change agent. At the University of St. Thomas School of Law, Dr. Tyner serves as Clinical Law Faculty and Director of Diversity. She teaches in the Community Justice Project, an award-winning civil rights clinic. She is also the author of the upcoming book, The Lawyer as Leader: How to Use Your Legal Skills to Promote Social Change, which will be published by the American Bar Association.