The School-to-Prison Pipeline and How It Can Stop Once We Put an End to Zero-Tolerance Policies

By: Stephanie McIntyre

The school-to-prison pipeline is a frightening reality throughout the United States. While college is all but certain for students in some communities, students in other neighborhoods are being funneled out of public schools and into the criminal justice system at an alarming rate. Instead of going to leadership conventions and honors programs, these students are suspended, expelled, or sent to correctional facilities. Instead of being primed to start a career and encouraged to excel academically, they are closely surveilled and handcuffed. And instead of emerging from their twenties with college degrees, they have criminal records.

The school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon is the fruit of the zero-tolerance policies and the increased practices of having School Resource Officers (SROs) present to monitor children and make arrests at schools. These policies and practices became prominent in the 1990s after the Columbine school shooting. Essentially, students are punished with suspension, expulsion or criminal charges for minor infractions, and then placed right into the hands of the juvenile justice system.

Proponents of the zero-tolerance policies argue that they are effective ways to deter misbehavior by the students. They argue that schools must have strict policies against small offenses in order to maintain order, make the school safer and decrease the instances of more serious offences. However, studies have found virtually no data to suggest that the policies reduce misbehavior. Instead, research indicates that there is a correlation between these policies and negative effects on students’ emotional health and graduation ratesWhile the policies are aimed at maintaining order, they are effectively eroding a healthy school environment by “turn[ing] schools into supplemental law enforcement agencies.”

It is particularly troubling that while zero-tolerance policies are facially neutral, statistics show that these policies disproportionately affect students in poor, minority communities. These are students that have the least family resources, are attending the worst schools, face the toughest time in the labor market, and deal with frequent violence in their neighborhoods. We are effectively telling the students who deal with the toughest societal issues that they can never do any wrong or else they will be charged by their schools with criminal offenses. For instance, a student who gets into a fight can end up with an assault chargea student who is unknowingly in the wrong company can end up being charged as an accompliceand a student with marijuana may be subjected to a random search and seizure because of how closely police surveil them. These behaviors are not particular to students of minority, underserved communities; however, they are predominantly being charged as juvenile delinquents, as documented by The U.S. Department of Education.

When controlling for other variables such as socioeconomics, zero-tolerance policies disproportionately affect black students. A study by researchers at Villanova University found that while the punitiveness of a school’s discipline policy was positively correlated with the percentage of its students that were black, it was not correlated with students’ rates of juvenile delinquency or drug use. In fact, a study of Texas’s disciplinary policies found that discretionary suspensions fell especially hard on black students: they were 31% more likely to receive a discretionary suspension, even after controlling for 83 other variablesincluding economic status, disabilities, and school-type. The NAACP reported that while blacks are 17% of the youth population, they account for 45% of all juvenile arrests. Black youth are two times more likely than their white counterparts to be “arrested, referred to juvenile court, formally processed and adjudicated as delinquent or referred to the adult criminal justice system.”

While these policies disproportionately criminalize black students with serious charges, many of the black students subjected to these policies are being suspended or arrested for more vague offenses. For instance, black students are more likely to be charged with disorderly conduct or insubordination if they upset a teacher or get in conflict with an SRO. In 2006-2007, 51% of students suspended for profanity and 57% of students suspended for insubordination were black. Black students are not only getting suspended, but they are getting arrested for committing these minor offences. During the 2011-2012 school year, about 92,000 students were arrested in school, according to the US Department of Education statistics, and most of the arrests were for low-level violations (74% of arrests in New York City public schools in 2012 were for misdemeanors or civil violations).

While some students are being directly funneled into the juvenile justice system due to school charges, other are being placed into the hands of police after being forced to leave school. Forced leave through suspension or expulsion does not do anything to improve a student’s academic standing, nor does it do anything to monitor his behavior or improve his safety. One study shows that students who have been suspended or expelled are three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile probation system the following year than one who wasn’t.

The punishment of students does not end with serving time. Often times, following arrests, the students face court fees, probation and parole restrictions, low level warrants, house arrest, continued police surveillance, or are forced to live in half-way houses. In the event that they cannot pay a court fee, or happen to commit another minor offense, they are sent back to the detention center, buried under more legal fees, and face even dimmer prospects for graduating high school, attending college, or getting a well-paying job. The zero-tolerance policies and use of police officers on school grounds are deeply failing our students.

The Obama administration began looking into the civil rights implications of the zero-tolerance policies in light of their disproportionate effects on students of color. Additionallystates began taking matters into their own hands and in 2009, several states passed laws to revise zero tolerance policies in schools. Schools are replacing these policies with more restorative, flexible, and supportive practices such as character education and social-emotional learning programs. These approaches hold great promise and are proving to reverse the negative trend of criminalizing students. We need to continue this trajectory and eradicate all zero-tolerance policies, focus on improving learning environments and change perceptions of school safety.


Suggested citation: Stephanie McIntyre, The School-to-Prison Pipeline and How It Can Stop Once We Put an End to Zero-Tolerance PoliciesCornell J.L. & Pub. Pol’y, The Issue Spotter, (Oct. 16, 2018),