The School-to-Prison Pipeline in Action

Justice System Reform

At a recent talk I gave on the School-to-Prison Pipeline, a school board member in the audience strongly objected to the metaphor and said he thought it wrongly blamed school boards and school administrators for a whole host of societal problems that weren’t theirs to solve. At one level, I accept his point: schools can’t be held responsible for all of the poor outcomes for many of our children. While they certainly have a big role to play, public schools can’t do it alone, especially considering the crushing reduction of public support they are now experiencing.

Yet on another level, I can’t let school boards and administrators off the hook. I’ve seen too many occasions where the decisions of the administrators and boards actively push an already challenged student toward a life that will most likely include incarceration.

Here’s a recent case: An African-American male student, 15 years-old and in the ninth grade for the second time, was suspended from school for six months, with no option for any kind of alternative education, and referred for criminal charges by the School Resource Officer. His conduct? A class disruption, which consisted of a loud confrontation between him and another student during a class transition period, and a fist fight in the parking lot with the same student.

Perhaps you are thinking that the student must have had a significant discipline history for this conduct to result in such a long exclusion. Not so. He had been suspended only once before during the school year: a one-day suspension for using “inappropriate language.” Or perhaps you assumed that the other student was seriously injured in the fight. Again, not so. Neither student sustained any significant injury and no weapons were used. Or maybe you thought that this student must have been highly aggressive. Also not true. As the facts came out, it appeared that the other student initiated the parking lot fight. The “aggravating factor,” according to the principal, was that this student didn’t stop fighting immediately when told by a teacher to stop.

The six-month suspension, with no alternative school, was recommended by the principal, imposed by the superintendent after a brief appeal hearing, and affirmed by the Board of Education, again after a brief hearing. All of those administrators had access to the student’s full school records, which contain the following information:

  • The student lives with his grandmother, who printed the following answers on the “Home Language Survey Form.” Question: “What is the first language the student learned to speak?” Answer: mama. Question: What language is most often spoken in the home? Answer: hungry.
  • The student has never passed an end-of-grade test. Nevertheless, he was moved to the next grade every year, until his first year in ninth grade, in which he failed to earn a single academic credit.
  • On a nationally-standardized test administered by the school while the student was in the 3rd grade, he scored at the first percentile, meaning that 99 percent of students scored higher than he did.
  • Even with his strikingly low educational performance, the student was never tested to see if he had a disability that was affecting his learning; therefore, he was never identified as needing special education services, although he most certainly needed them.
  • Despite his repeated failure to meet state standards, he never had a Personalized Education Plan, a plan of “focused interventions” required by the state for all students at risk of academic failure. There is no evidence of any summer school, remedial work, or other supplementary programming to address his academic needs.
  • Although throughout his school career he had many absences, there is no record of any assistance or programming related to school attendance.
  • During his testimony at the appeal of the six-month suspension, the student said that he had had conflict earlier in the year with the student he fought, and had asked his principal to intervene and assist with resolving the conflict. He got no help.

If the school administrators and board members looked at these records, they weren’t moved by them. Indeed, they seemed to have no particular interest at all in the student or his history or even the events that took place in this particular incident. At both appeal hearings, attended by the student and his grandmother, no school administrator or board member asked a single question. They sat impassively and heard only that the student “disrupted the school day” with a single loud exchange between classes and engaged in a parking lot fist fight after school, with no weapons and no injuries. And then they decided he was no longer entitled to any education for the rest of the school year.

While it is clear that the school administrators and board members had limited interest at best in the individual student who they were exiling from school, they must believe this type of penalty is necessary or at least serves a broader purpose. If they did any research at all, however, they would find out they are wrong. These long suspensions do not make schools safer as a whole and have devastating effects on the individual student involved. The evidence shows that schools in which harsh punishments like this are imposed are in fact less safe than schools in which alternatives to suspension are used, such as peer mediation, conflict resolution workshops, and positive behavior supports. The evidence also shows that a long suspension like this one catapults a student toward dropping out of school and becoming engaged in criminal activity.

In this case – and so many others like it – I see a student who probably never had the kind of support every child needs. I don’t know much about his early life, or why he ended up in the custody of his grandmother. But I see from the records that he was hungry a lot, and that he showed a critical need for more educational support than he ever got. It’s evident that he gradually became more disconnected from his education; as he fell further and further behind, it became less and less engaging for him. The tools available to the educators – such as special education or a Personal Education Plan – were ignored; his functionally illiterate grandmother didn’t know they were available or how to advocate for them. She was likely too busy working low-wage jobs and caring for her grandson to try to push the teachers to do what they should have done. The student had never learned how to manage conflict, and for not knowing, he was punished, not taught.

So we have a young man likely on his way from school to prison. He will be found guilty in court of the charges filed; he doesn’t deny the conduct. Out of school, without any alternative education, on probation, he will sit around his house, or walk around his neighborhood for months on end. Technically, he’s allowed to return to school next year and try ninth grade for the third time. But the allure of the streets will likely grab him first. He’ll have a record, and he won’t have the skills to successfully reintegrate into school. He knows in his heart of hearts that he’s not wanted at school. That’s been well communicated to him, by the principal, the superintendent, the school resource officer, and the school board. For this young man, the School-to-Prison Pipeline exists. He’s in it and there’s not likely a way out.

Jane Wettach serves on YJNC’s Board of Directors

Note: The author recently issued a report, “Instead of Suspension: Alternative Strategies for Effective School Discipline” which is available here.