School-to-Prison Pipeline For Juveniles

Zero-tolerance policies and standardized testing have changed the way schools discipline students. There are programs designed to help plug the flow of children being pushed out of the classroom and into the courtroom.


I graduated summa cum laude with a BS in Justice Studies from Arizona State University and magna cum laude with a MS in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. I am very proud of these honors. I will also be the first to admit that I was almost expelled from school when I was in the 7th grade. If it wasn’t for the fight my mom put up in front of the expulsion committee, my life might have turned out very differently. This is not to say that I didn’t struggle with oppositional and defiant behaviors for many school years after my hearing, but it allowed me to continue my education uninterrupted. I was chronically absent and/or tardy. I hung out with the anti-social stoners. I spent a lot of time in Saturday school, as well as, in-school and after school detention. I often talked back to my teachers or even refused to acknowledge they were talking to me at all. When I was in 8th grade, I made one of my teachers so mad by my defiance that he shoved me up against the wall outside the classroom. I was that kid. I’m grateful now that I went through school when I did. Before zero-tolerance rules took away teacher and administrator discretion, before counselors were deemed an extraneous expense and cut and before schools looked to police officers to handle disciplinary issues. But mostly, before the School-to-Prison Pipeline became a devastating reality.

 School-to-Prison Pipeline

Although not a new concept, the efforts by many juvenile justice and education professionals to address and plug this pipeline has brought this term into the public consciousness. ACLU describes it as “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of the public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished and pushed out.” Policies and practices within the school system are creating an environment of discretionary punishment often sending children away from the classroom into a courtroom. As the editors of Rethinking Schools explain, we’ve moved away from “collaborative learning environments, multicultural curriculum, student-centered, experiential pedagogy” to a “back-to-basics backlash” with an “ever more alienating curriculum”.

Although many have speculated on causes for this trend, the most commonly cited culprits are zero-tolerance rules and standardized testing. Zero-tolerance policies have criminalized minor infractions of school rules. A quick glance at the news shows stories such as, 2 Suffolk (VA) second grade boys suspended after pointing pencils at each other and making shooting sounds, a 15 y/o A/B student suspended for 10 days for bringing to school throat spray and cold relief pills given to him by his father and a NC Senior expelled and charged with a felony for forgetting his shotgun was still in his truck when he went to school. This last incident occurred just this month and this 18 y/o honor student and Eagle Scout’s infraction was only discovered when he realized his mistake and called his mom from the office to come pick up the gun which he had used for skeet shooting over the weekend.

Standardized testing, on the other hand, has been cited as the reason many school administrators want to push-out those students who will lower the school’s score. In my experience, I witnessed my son’s middle school segregate “problem” children putting them into a special classroom that wasn’t considered general education therefore excluding them from standardized testing. Many of these children had academic issues and were struggling without benefit of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The Texas study Breaking Schools’ Rules brought up the point that if a child is suspended or expelled when testing is being performed, they are not counted in the school’s performance rating. This has led to many speculations over the timing of suspensions and expulsions.

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