School-to-Prison Pipeline: Everything You Need to Know

The school-to-prison pipeline features students who have to leave school (either via suspension or expulsion) and checks the link between leaving school in this manner and, at some point, ending up in prison. It has been discovered that those students who get taken out of school either momentarily or forever, also have higher high-school dropout rates than their counterparts who were not removed from the classroom.

The two main factors that produced and now sustain the school-to-prison pipeline are the zero-tolerance policies of schools and the existence of on-campus SROs (School Resource Officers). The zero-tolerance policies mandate exclusionary punishments, such as expulsions and suspensions, often for minor infractions of school rules. On-campus SROs criminalize students for behavior that should have been handled inside the school.

After the series of deadly school shootings across the U.S. in the 1990s, these practices and policies were implemented across schools as educators and lawmakers believed they would help to make school campuses safe. But they created a different set of problems.

In schools with a zero-tolerance policy, any violation of school rules or misbehavior isn’t tolerated, no matter how unintentional, minor, or subjectively defined it may be. Consequently, suspensions and expulsions are common and normal ways of handling incidents of student misbehavior. For instance, in schools with zero-tolerance policies, students have been expelled for bringing scissors or nail clippers to school, chewing Pop-Tarts into the shape of a gun, and pointing their fingers like a gun.

The growing reliance of schools on SROs, who often have little or no training in working with young adults, is another contributing factor to the school-to-prison pipeline. Hence, students in such schools are a lot more likely to be put through school-based arrests, most of which are for non-violent offenses, like disruptive behavior. Such rising criminalization of school children and growing incidents of school-based arrests power the quickest path from the classroom to the jailhouse. 

It is common for those who are not at risk of this school-to-prison pipeline to wonder why they should even be bothered by it, or by the students affected. Nonetheless, this pipeline is of vast importance, apart from the fact that caring about others’ quality of life is a humane quality. In terms of monetary resources, the school-to-prison pipeline costs taxpayers several thousands of dollars. Since prisoners do not contribute to economic growth via the workforce, it also negatively impacts the economy. 

While prison employees and CEOs of big prison corporations may receive monetary compensation for running the prisons, if the economic cost of keeping these individuals in prison is calculated, the country’s economy would be at a loss.

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