The phrase "school to prison pipeline"
is probably a familiar one to most people — but what does it really mean?
It's a serious issue affecting the future our country's youth, it destroys families and communities, and contributes to the problem of mass incarceration in the United States — where there are more people in prison than any other country in the world. The U.S. has 5 percent of the world's population, and 25 percent of the world's prisoners.
Behind the school-to-prison pipeline lurk policies and practices ostensibly meant to help keep our children and our schools safer. These policies include zero-tolerance disciplinary measures, and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) academic standards can actually hinder our children and communities, and often result in the opposite of their intended consequences.
"Zero-tolerance" discipline may sound good on paper — but in reality, it's applied in a way that results in children punished for being bullying victims, for talking back, for brief truancy, or for having a possession interpreted as a weapon — such as a camping fork.
The system disproportionately affects
children who come from lower-income backgrounds, have mental or behavioral issues, disabilities or are minorities. Instead of addressing these individual issues or taking a rehabilitative approach, a system has been implemented whose intent is punishment — which often exacerbates the underlying issues, enters them into the juvenile justice system, and slaps youth with criminal records.
Under zero tolerance, students can be punished with suspensions, depriving them of educational and socializing opportunities, and reducing their chances of success. Minor infractions often have disproportionate consequences and police become involved. Schools and teachers have inadequate resources and training to deal with overcrowded classrooms containing a range of students with different levels of abilities and needs.
And we're not just talking about high school students when we discuss zero-tolerance policies. High school is indeed the a place where you might envision that the rollercoaster ride of adolescence inevitably translates into some aggressive and impulsive behavior. But the pathway to the pipeline actually begins much earlier — as early as kindergarten
or preschool. And sometimes the origins of a child's issues even stem from having parents who have been involved in the justice system.
Children with incarcerated parents are often much less likely to be prepared for school, as are those raised in poverty. By the age of three, children from low-income families, exposed to about 30 million fewer words than other children. These disadvantages can see young children lash out due to frustration, and school staff may not have the training to handle them. NCLB's rigorous focus on test scores rather than well-rounded instruction and individualized attention has been shown to increase the dropout rate, which only fuels the school-to-prison pipeline.
New laws can also immerse young children in the juvenile justice system. For example, a new Missouri law
announced in late 2016 could conceivably result in schoolchildren of any age or grade level who are caught fighting, bullying or harassing being charged with a Class E felony, with some facing the possibility of up to four years in custody.
While crime rates are actually decreasing, punishing children with out-of-school suspensions and arrests are increasing. Out-of-school suspensions have increased by 10 percent
. Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled, even in preschool, depriving them of essential learning and developmental opportunities, and creating a negative, adversarial view of school in general. Students with suspensions or expulsions are much less likely to graduate from high school. These systems, which were originally designed to ensure safe learning environments, are setting more children up to fail by taking away their chances to learn and increasing their interactions with the criminal justice system.
Schools must return to being safe spaces for learning. Punishments for infractions should be proportional, and should include measures to address the root issues of misbehavior. Zero -tolerance policies should not steal away the opportunity to graduate, nor put children whose families are unable to pay fees and fines into extra time in juvenile detention facilities. Children need to be supported — not punished – by the education system. Staff and teachers need appropriate environments and training to maintain order and safety without needing to criminalize children by handing them off to school resource officers and other authorities.
There are some schools and communities doing great things to address disciplinary issues by developing alternative sentencing
such as participation in rehabilitative programs and community service, and by creating individualized learning plans for struggling students that need specific supports. Let's hope more schools jump on this train of thought. We need to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline to prevent future generations from becoming embroiled in our shameful system of mass incarceration.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook:
The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com