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Are Schools Prisons? Examining the School-to-Prison Pipeline

In recent decades, connections have intensified between the education and criminal justice systems in the United States. Critics argue that schools, especially those serving primarily students of color from low-income areas, have taken on the characteristics of prisons. Harsh disciplinary policies and security measures feed what has become known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” This article examines evidence for and against the school-to-prison pipeline theory. It analyzes related school policies and their effects on vulnerable student populations.

Defining the School-to-Prison Pipeline

The term “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to practices and policies within school systems that increase involvement with law enforcement and the juvenile and criminal justice systems, consequently funneling students into incarceration. These include:1

  • Zero-tolerance discipline policies requiring automatic suspensions, expulsions, and arrests even for minor infractions
  • Increased reliance on sworn police officers stationed at schools (“school resource officers”)
  • Frequent searches, metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and lockdowns
  • Referrals of students to law enforcement for school misconduct

Critics argue these measures create prison-like environments in schools attended predominantly by students of color. The result is the deprivation of education through suspension, expulsion, and incarceration, often for developmentally typical adolescent behaviors.

Racial Disparities in School Discipline

Zero-tolerance approaches to discipline have increased student suspension and expulsion rates over time. These punitive policies have disproportionately affected students of color:2

  • Black students are suspended at 2-3 times the rate of other students
  • Just 16% of the student population, Black students represent 33% of suspensions and 42% of expulsions

Such racial disparities cannot be fully explained by differences in behavior or socioeconomic factors.3 Subjective offenses like “defiance of authority” are unevenly punished. Discrimination in discipline remains an ongoing issue. Critics argue these policies imply certain students, especially Black males, are criminals in training rather than children deserving education.

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Criminalizing School Misbehavior

Alongside harsher disciplinary measures, schools have increasingly relied on law enforcement to handle student misconduct. Police officers stationed at schools arrest students for offenses once handled internally:

  • In just Maryland and Virginia, over 16,000 students were arrested in schools from 2015-20194
  • Most arrests were for minor incidents like disorderly conduct, fights, and other nonviolent behavior

Critics contend schools have become over-reliant on arrest and threat of jail rather than counseling, restorative practices, or family and community involvement. The increased involvement of law enforcement prematurely introduces children into the criminal justice system. An arrest record can permanently alter a young person’s future.

The Impact on Vulnerable Students

Research suggests the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable student populations:5

  • Students with disabilities: Students with emotional and behavioral disabilities are particularly at risk of harsh discipline. Their disabilities are often exacerbated by punitive zero-tolerance policies and lack of support services.
  • LGBTQ students: Homophobia and transphobia lead some schools to disproportionately police and discipline LGBTQ youth.
  • Low-income students: Low-income students of color lack the resources for legal advocacy and private alternative schooling to avoid criminalization.

Suspended, expelled, and arrested students are cut off from classroom instruction and supportive adults. Deprived of education, they are more likely to fall behind, drop out, and become involved in the justice system. The school-to-prison pipeline thus perpetuates social inequality.

Counter-Arguments in Defense of School Security Measures

Supporters of stringent school discipline and security argue:

  • Maintaining order: Strict policies are necessary to maintain an orderly environment for learning given challenges facing schools in some districts. Removing disruptive students ensures classrooms remain safe and focused.
  • Preventing violence: In the wake of school shootings, security measures provide genuine protection against violent threats. Police officers (“school resource officers”) make schools safer.
  • Preparing for real world: Metal detectors, searches, law enforcement on campus, and zero tolerance policies prepare students for highly regulated adult environments like prisons and the military.
  • Holding students accountable: Arrest and suspension teach personal responsibility and deter other students from misconduct. Schools must report crimes to police to hold students accountable under the law.
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However, evidence suggests punitive policies do not improve school climate, behavior, or safety. Alternatives like restorative justice may better address conflicts and build community.6

Restorative Practices to Replace Exclusion

To avoid the school-to-prison pipeline, districts have adopted less punitive, more rehabilitative approaches:

  • Restorative justice programs: Rather than defaulting to suspension and expulsion, schools facilitate victim-offender mediation, family group conferencing with parents and teachers, or classroom peace circles. These collaborative processes allow all parties to be heard, build empathy, and find solutions.
  • Social-emotional learning: Curriculums teach emotion regulation, conflict resolution, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills students may lack.
  • Trauma-informed training for teachers: Teachers learn warning signs and triggers among traumatized students so they can respond with compassion rather than anger to acting out behaviors.
  • School culture shift: Districts institute district-wide culture change and non-punitive discipline focused on belonging, skill building, and addressing root causes of behavior.

Initial research shows such supportive approaches provide better outcomes than criminalization for struggling students and schools alike. But broader reforms require shifting mindsets on how children and adolescents should be treated under the law.


While ensuring safe learning environments is crucial, current evidence suggests harsh security and zero-tolerance measures have been over-applied, unnecessarily pushing vulnerable students into the criminal justice system. Providing all young people the support and tools to mature into responsible citizens should be the goal. Ending the school-to-prison pipeline will require reforms to school discipline and culture as well as youth justice practices emphasizing rehabilitation over punishment. With compassion and community-focused solutions, schools can undo the damage of excessive criminalization.

Frequently Asked Questions

Don’t police officers (“school resource officers”) make schools safer?

Research on effects of police in schools is mixed. Having an officer on campus was associated with higher reported crimes, likely due to increased student arrests. Their presence did not deter school shootings or gun possession. Overall effects on safety are unclear, while connections to the school-to-prison pipeline are evident. Effective officers build relationships and mentor students, but many lack proper training. Counselors, therapists and community liaisons could provide safety through different means.

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If schools don’t use zero-tolerance policies, how can they maintain order and discipline?

Critics argue zero-tolerance approaches create school climates centered on control and punishment rather than learning. Alternatives like restorative justice aim to build student empathy, problem-solve conflicts, and repair harm done. This fosters a community focused on rehabilitation and growth rather than exclusion and retaliation. Reasonable security measures will still be necessary, but disciplining students should teach accountability, not push them into prisons.

Don’t strict discipline policies teach students to obey laws and authority figures?

Strict authoritarian discipline aimed at control and obedience has limited effectiveness. While students must learn to function within reasonable rules and systems, harsh policies often breed resentment, resistance and reactions in vulnerable adolescents. Schools focused on belonging, mentoring, and socio-emotional development are more likely to mature students into law-abiding citizens. Excessively punishing them as criminals fosters real criminality.

Don’t arrests deter other students from misbehaving and teach law-breaking has consequences?

Police arrests and juvenile detention for typical school misconduct appear to have little deterrent effect and instead damage students’ futures. Positive behavior modeling and reinforcement, mentoring, restorative practices, counseling, and community-based programs tend to work better at steering youth away from crime. For adolescents, rehabilitation should be the goal rather than blind punishment.

Shouldn’t students who bring weapons, drugs, or commit assaults at school face arrest?

Students who commit serious violent acts or distribute dangerous substances at school require interventions, which may include a period of juvenile detention in extreme cases. But the vast majority of school police referrals and arrests are for non-violent behaviors better handled through school discipline, counseling, and family engagement. In an equitable system, the same acts should not lead to handcuffs for some students while others get warnings.

Imran Khan

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