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Public Schools in the US Feed the School-to-Prison Pipeline and Perpetuate Mass Incarceration

Author: Lex Atkins | April 21st 2022

What is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

The term ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ has been thrown around a lot in the media recently, yet many people don’t realize what it is and how it gravely affects children, specifically minority children in inner city schools. This term refers to how children are funneled directly from schools into prisons and ‘policies that encourage police presence at schools, harsh tactics including physical restraint, and automatic punishments that result in suspensions and out-of-class time’ (Marilyn, 2013). These policies tend to disproportionately affect minority children and children with disabilities. For example, ‘African-American students are 3.5 times more likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled’ (Marilyn, 2013). By having heavy police presence, strict policies and prison-like atmospheres in schools (metal detectors, pat downs, etc.) children are not able to focus on their education and are stuck in a negative mindset and environment. This mindset is worsened when teachers succumb to strict automatic punishments which remove the child from their learning environment and decrease self esteem. Children who are consistently removed from their learning environments and plagued by low-self esteem then run the risk of acting out and committing crime; a report found that ‘students with disabilities make up 8.6 percent of public school children but 32 percent of youth in juvenile detention centers’ (Marilyn, 2013). This is not coincidental, it is perpetuated by the policies that currently exist in schools.

Zero-Tolerance Policies that Target Minority Children

Zero-tolerance policies in inner city schools have become common practice. However, these policies play a major role in perpetuating the school-to-prison pipeline. A seemingly extreme but actually quite common example of this happened to 12-year old Alexa Gonzalez in 2010. She wrote “I love my friends Abby and Faith” and “Lex was here 2/1/10” on her desk in Spanish class with erasable markers. Incoincidentally, ‘the school deemed these markings as vandalism, and as a result, Alexa was handcuffed, arrested, and detained at a NYC Police Department precinct in Queens’ (Farnel, 2018). She was held for several hours in a jail cell. These policies do not recognize the fact that Alexa was a 12 year old child at the time and had no malicious intent of ‘vandalism’ as the school would suggest. The language of these policies have no room for discretion or alternative punishments and continuously put children like Alexa in an unhealthy environment that lands them behind bars. These policies ‘stem from law enforcement’s adoption of “broken windows” policing and the Gun-Free Schools Act’ (Farnel, 2018). The American Civil Liberties Union has addressed this issue many times and has now started a movement to fight these policies in court and change the environment that these children have to endure. They’ve created a mission statement including ‘challenges to the criminalization and incarceration of young people-particularly youth from disenfranchised communities’ and ‘promoting positive approaches to school discipline and seeking to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline’ (ACLU, 2022). This streamline of minority students into the juvenile justice system must be prevented in order to keep children out of prison into adulthood and abolish mass incarceration.

Policies That Disproportionately Affect Children with Disabilities

With the addition of zero-tolerance policies targeting children with disabilities, ‘dismantling the pipeline requires an intersectional approach to disability and racial discrimination’ (DREDF, 2020). The language of these policies perpetuate racism and ableism in schools and give administration the legal freedom to target minority children with disabilities without repercussion. The Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund believes that a ‘critical yet overlooked aspect of this crisis is the widespread failure of public schools to implement the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)’ (DREDF, 2020). Students who qualify for protection under this act are not given the proper services and are continuously discriminated against in the public school system. This leads to zero-tolerance policies targeting those with disabilities and feeding the pipeline. According to the US Department of Education ‘students with disabilities (served by IDEA) represent 12 percent of the student population, but 58 percent of those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement, and 75 percent of those physically restrained at school to immobilize them or reduce their ability to move freely’ (US DOE for Civil Rights, 2014). The atmosphere that these students endure do not only put them in physical incarceration environments but mental incarceration environments as well. Students with mental disabilities are even more susceptible to this, increasing rates of depression and low self esteem. When a student is treated as if they are criminals within a school environment and talked down upon, as allowed by zero-tolerance policies, this increases the chance of acting out and further punishment.

Suspension Statistics in the U.S.

The ‘Civil Rights Data Collection’ by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights statistics show that students who are minorities and who have disabilities are disciplined at much higher rates than other students. 

NOTE: Detail may not sum to 100% due to rounding. Totals: Enrollment is 49 million students, in-school suspension is 3.5 million students, single out-of-school suspension is 1.9 million students, multiple out-of-school suspension is 1.55 million students, and expulsion is 130,000 students. Data reported in this figure represents 99% of responding schools.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection, 2011-12.

As shown in the graph above, African American/Black students only makeup about 16 percent of the student population, but 32-42 percent of students who are suspended or expelled. When comparing their white peers, they represent a similar percentage of 31-40 percent, but make up 51 percent of the student population. These numbers are grave and disproportionate in how school districts discipline their students all around the country when adhering to zero-tolerance policies. 

NOTE: Data reflects 98.9% of CRDC schools. Totals include 40,000 male and 19,000 female student who are American Indian/Native Alaskan, 71,000 male and 25,000 female students who are Asian, 11,000 male and 4,000 female students who are Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, 750,000 male and 355,000 female students who are black, 840,000 male and 410,000 female students who are Latino, 69,000 male and 25,000 female students who are of two or more races, 2.1 million male and 1.1 million female students who are white.
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Civil Rights Data Collection, 2011-12.

Comparatively, minority students with disabilities, especially young boys, are punished even more frequently with 29 percent of all suspensions targeting Black/African American boys. As shown above, the suspension rates for both white boys and girls are lower than almost every other ethnicity at 12 and 6 percent respectively.  These statistics are needed to spark reform and change in the American school system as it is hard to ignore clear statistical evidence that shows racism and ableism.

How Does the School-to-Prison Pipeline Perpetuate Mass Incarceration?

The dynamic perpetuated by the school-to-prison pipeline is a dangerous one that a child cannot escape. Once they are in the juvenile justice system, it is likely that they will stay trapped into adulthood. This continuously affects children of color as they are more likely to have a parent who is incarcerated, the hardships of being raised in poverty due to single-parent households, and trouble at school due to discriminatory policies. Considering the idea that zero-tolerance policies and tough on crime movements in schools arose from the institution of police and policing practices that disproportionately affect adult minorities with disabilities, it is not surprising that the pipeline feeds mass incarceration. In a WHYY interview with Chenjerai Kumanyika, a professor at Rutgers University, Kumanyika states, “I once heard Marc Lamont Hill say the problem isn’t that the police are broken and we need to fix it. The problem is that the police are working, and we need to break it” (Ailsa, 2020). The institution of police and the school-to-prison pipeline tie together by the fact that neither protects social order and both are working exactly on the foundation that they were built on, discrimination and punishment; they only perpetuate mass incarceration. So, when you have police in school environments you are going to get exactly what you would expect and that is disproportionate punishment. Michelle Alexander further explains this phenomenon in a ‘Rethinking Schools’ interview, “The wave of punitiveness that washed over the United States with the rise of the drug war and the get tough movement really flooded our schools. Schools, caught up in this maelstrom began viewing children as criminals or suspects, rather than as young people with an enormous amount of potential struggling in their own ways… We began viewing the youth in schools as potential violators rather than as children needing our guidance” (Sokolower, 2011). Until we can break the stigma surrounding children and abolish the institutions that allow the pipeline to exist, there will be no justice for minority children, most with disabilities, who are trying to grow and learn in their own ways. 

L. Atkins // Education For Liberation Final // Spring 2022


ACLU. “School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Juvenile Justice, ACLU, 15 Feb. 2022,

Chang, Ailsa. “The History of Police in Creating Social Order in the U.S.” NPR, NPR, 5 June 2020,

DREDF. “School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Legal Advocacy, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, 11 Feb. 2020,

Elias, Marilyn. “The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Policies and practices that favor incarceration over education do us all a grave injustice.” Learning for Justice, Learning for Justice, Spring 2013.

Maxime, Farnel. “Zero-Tolerance Policies and the School to Prison Pipeline.” Shared Justice, Shared Justice, 18 Jan. 2018,

Sokolower, Jody. “Michelle Alexander on the New Jim Crow and the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Rethinking Schools, Rethinking Schools, 20 Dec. 2011,

U.S DOE. (2014). Civil Rights Data Collection – Ed. CIVIL RIGHTS DATA COLLECTION Data Snapshot: School Discipline. Retrieved April 24, 2022, from