Why Are Students in a School-to-Prison Pipeline?

About a month before I graduated from New York University with my teaching credential, Columbine happened.

I remember watching the news coverage on television in the gym as we prepared to head out for track practice. One of my teammates asked if I was nervous about becoming a teacher after seeing that. I thought back to my teaching observations and student teaching in New York City: the heavy police presence in the public schools; the time it took to enter the school building each day because of the searches conducted by local police; and the line to walk through the metal detectors. And I said I wasn’t, because there were too many police officers in the schools where I’d taught to have allowed that to happen.

However, while I had initially associated police presence in schools with protection, there is evidence that it has an unintended consequence — that of contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.

School Policies that Lead to Prison

As I quickly understood after teaching in urban public schools, the presence of the police — in combination with a lack of disciplinary innovation and limited funding to support professional development — contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. Indeed, according to the ACLU, “an increased reliance on police rather than teachers and administrators to maintain discipline” is one of a number of policies and practices that lead students into a prolongued relationship with the prison system.

Because infractions (at times, very minor ones) can lead to serious disciplinary action, zero-tolerance policies for minor school infractions have drawn criticism for ultimately leading to police intervention and introducing students to the courts.

Studies show that when students are suspended from school, the likelihood that they will enter the prison system increases. When police officers are on school grounds, teachers and administrators are more likely to rely on them for disciplinary purposes rather than handling the behavioral issues themselves.

For example, in South Carolina, a police officer was brought in to handle a student’s use of a cell phone in class and threw her out of her chair, a punishment that was not warranted by the infraction. A minor infraction was escalated to the point where a student received dehumanizing treatment by a police officer. In an interview on NPR, math teacher and restorative practices consultant Karen Junker suggested that for an incident such as the one in South Carolina, she wouldn’t have necessarily even called the front office, but instead “would have had the student go next door to one of my colleague’s rooms and write a reflection.”

Once students are on the radar of school leaders and law enforcement officials, they are less likely to be presumed innocent — and they may also be less incentivized to stay out of trouble. This is likely to be especially true if students feel that their disciplinary records have diminished their college and career prospects. Recidivism rates can also be high, ranging from six to 26 percent within a period of five years, as one study of recidivism in 30 states found. Even among those who do not commit the same offenses again, prospects are limited: Students who have entered the juvenile justice system face obstacles when they attempt to return to their schools, and many never graduate from high school.

I am reminded of when I was a violence prevention consultant in Oakland having a conversation with a principal about why he suspended a kindergartner for stealing a pencil — or perhaps borrowing without permission, unknowingly committing an infraction. I am also reminded of another principal telling me how the school lottery system — which provided classroom spots to a select number of students from other districts — created so much fear within the wealthy, mostly white community around his school, that he was constantly meeting with neighborhood residents so they could make suspension recommendations, mostly regarding students of color. In fact, in-school (and ultimately, real-world) discipline is disproportionately rendered against people of color. According to the U.S. Department of Education, “black students are expelled and suspended at a rate three times greater than white students.”

Salary Raises Aren’t the Answer

As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pointed out in his speech, "Investing in Teachers Instead of Prisons,” if states halted expenditures for low-level nonviolent crime, they could reinvest $15 billion in public schools. Because it would ultimately be up to the state to decide how that money is spent, Duncan has made suggestions as to how to allocate funds, including for teacher training and salary increases.

There are school districts with unions that can focus on salary increases and afford regular professional development. But those tend not to be the ones where there is a well-established school-to-prison pipeline.

Instead, the school-to-prison pipeline tends to manifest in underresourced schools, where low salary rates alone cannot account for faculty attrition rates, or for the need to rely on temporary Teach for America staffers. At schools where students may come to school hungry, or be exposed to violence in their communities, classroom management struggles may trump salary considerations. When I raised the issue of one school’s high suspension rates with the principal, for instance, she responded by pointing to a window and saying, “Do you see that window? We just replaced it. One girl grabbed another girl’s arm and punched it through that window. When she pulled it back through, there were barely any tendons holding her arm together. And I was supposed to do what? Tell her to clean up at lunch time?” The ability and willingness to address such fundamental challenges venture well beyond a prospective teacher’s salary considerations.

Increased salaries may draw more experienced teachers to work in urban settings, but that does not guarantee that those teachers have experience within those communities or will be effective. Teachers who are committed to working in urban communities should certainly be compensated based on their level of training, training which should include creative and appropriate methods of classroom management.

Restorative Justice Is the Answer

When we train to become teachers, we learn that students will always have disciplinary issues — if only because students often commit infractions without knowing they are doing so, as in the case, perhaps, with the 5-year-old who “stole” a pencil. In such cases, teachers are asked to remind and redirect students. For example, if a student is chewing gum, a teacher would remind the student that chewing gum in class is not allowed, and then redirect the student to focus on the task at hand.

When I began working as a violence prevention consultant, my first step was to look at classroom management strategies, especially how teachers may escalate minor infractions to the point where supposed common behaviors end up warranting actual consequences rather than a reminder and redirection. If we consider all that went into the initial behavior escalating — for example, if a teacher embarrasses a student in front of her peers — then the punishment should match the initial incident, not what happened subsequently. But this would assume that discipline in schools or prisons — where students who have been suspended are more likely to end up — is meant to be restorative rather than punitive.

If punishment were restorative, a student’s visit to the principal’s office, or even a prison cell, might be a good thing. For nonviolent drug offenders, for instance, prison would mean rehabilitation, counseling, and perhaps most importantly, skills training; instead, it typically entails a long sentence without any of those other features. In schools, punitive “justice” looks very much the same as it does in prison, as in the case of the student in South Carolina, or the 5-year-old who was suspended for taking a pencil.

Police presence in schools is not the answer for halting the school-to-prison pipeline, but restorative justice is.

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