School-To-Prison Pipeline and Juvenile Justice

Reengaging the Jewish Community in Civil Rights

School-To-Prison Pipeline
and Juvenile Justice

The “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to the widespread trend of schools adopting “zero tolerance” disciplinary practices—out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and arrests—that drive students from the education system into the juvenile justice system. Almost 70% of inmates never graduated high school.

Over the past several decades, pre-school through high school across the nation embraced disciplinary models that mandate harsh punishments even for low-level misbehavior. Minor offenses, such as dress code or cell phone violations, profanity, and “talking back,” which once merited a visit to the principal’s office, are now cause for out-of-school suspension, expulsion, and in-school arrests.

Further compounding the problem, overcrowded, underfunded schools are increasingly relying on campus cops, known as Student Resource Officers, to handle routine discipline. According to the Justice Policy Institute, schools with Student Resource Officers were 5X more likely to arrest students for discretionary offenses like “disorderly conduct” or “insubordination” than those without police. As one chief judge told Congress in 2012, instead of addressing serious crimes, the juvenile justice system must now expend its resources on “prosecuting kids that are not ‘scary,’ but made an adult mad. Over 70% of students subjected to discretionary arrest are black or Latino. 

Such punitive measures, most of which are “discretionary,” disproportionately impact students of color, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities—many of whom are already impoverished, abused, and/or neglected at home. Federal data shows that black students are 3X as likely to face suspension or expulsion as their white classmates, despite numerous studies that indicate no behavioral differences. Research has largely dispelled the common notion that these disparities stem from issues of poverty and more misbehavior among students of color.

A groundbreaking Texas study found that just one out-of-school suspension doubled a student’s risk of dropping out and 23% of students who were suspended ended up in contact with the juvenile justice system. Of most concern, the study also found that black students were 31% more likely to receive a discretionary suspension, even after controlling for variables like the school’s demographics and regional attributes, age, socio-economic status, and English language proficiency.