“Schools Are Like Prisons”: How The School-to-Prison Pipeline Ruins Lives
“Schools are like prisons, because both institutions changed my sister’s life,” high school student Marta Aguila wrote. “Women shackled to the stirrups, can’t move, giving birth in jail. Students going to school. Herded masses passing through the metal detectors. Don’t forget your ID. $1 for a replacement, but that was lunch money to buy my chips. Yelling by security guards with a bad temper and (bad) breath. There’s no escape, just like in jail. There’s no choice. You are there for a certain time, and once you get out of the system it has changed you — both school and jail.”
Aguila wrote that essay in 2010 for Suspension Stories, a project that helps youth use their own voices to discuss how their schools criminalize students. Some even say that school prepares them for prison life. Sound crazy? It is — but it’s real, and it’s called the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Children in Chicago ARE afraid to come to school,” a mother, Amanda Prather, wrote. “School should be a safe environment, but children don’t feel that way, and they have a right to feel this way. Gangs, drugs, and violence infiltrate the school. On top of this, school is made out to seem like prison. There are police, security guards, metal detectors, and bars on the windows.”
Aguila and Prather penned these letters nine years ago, but the problems they detailed have only worsened.
It can be difficult to understand the school-to-prison pipeline. A good way to think of it is as a system of policies that criminalize children for breaking school rules or committing very minor offenses before reaching adulthood, rather than correcting disruptive behavior within schools. School officials choose to suspend or expel these students, which have both been linked to high rates of dropout and future incarceration. Even worse, police within schools can refer unruly students to the courts.
“Policies that encourage police presence at schools, harsh tactics including physical restraint, and automatic punishments that result in suspensions and out-of-class time are huge contributors to the pipeline,” according to Teaching Tolerance.
Sentencing kids to juvenile detention — or adult jails and prisons, in some cases — deprives them of educational and vocational opportunities. It also completely rejects the massive body of psychology behind why kids act out and the positive, effective ways in which we can help them.
First, let’s discuss some of the practices that send kids from the classroom to the courtroom.
They’re known as “zero-tolerance” policies, and they allow schools to send disobedient children to juvenile courts on their first offense. Stationing police in schools makes this easy as pie. “School resource officers,” a fancy phrase for cops assigned to roam the halls, can frisk, question, search, detain, arrest, and transport children to juvenile detention centers. We’re not talking violent crimes or drugs here; we’re talking kids without a hall pass, who didn’t follow the school dress code, who yelled too loudly in the cafeteria, or who forgot their student ID.
“Children are far more likely to be subject to school-based arrests — the majority of which are for non-violent offenses, such as disruptive behavior — than they were a generation ago,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Interrupting education with incarceration causes emotional trauma and can cost students vocational, social, and other opportunities. Not to mention, youth who spend time in juvenile detention are less likely to graduate and more likely to wind up in adult prisons.
So why zero-tolerance? In many public schools, overcrowding and a lack of resources such as counselors, special education, and textbooks actively encourage disengagement and dropouts of “problem pupils.” The No Child Left Behind Act, although given a noble-sounding name, leads schools to encourage underperforming students to drop out because teachers face intense pressure to submit high test scores or risk losing their already-limited funding and resources. Criminalizing minor infractions therefore reduces the need for these resources, including school counseling and rehabilitation.
As you might imagine, some children disproportionately face repercussions for behavioral problems or violations of school policies. Teaching Tolerance reports that racial minorities and children with disabilities are much more likely to face harsh policies. Black students are 3.5 times more likely than white or Hispanic students to be suspended or expelled. They make up just 18% of students, but 46% of those suspended. Further, almost a quarter of Black students with disabilities will face suspension compared to less than 10% of white and Hispanic students with disabilities.
There are plenty of other paths to rehabilitate kids who really need it, and lots of ways to avoid incarcerating those who just need a little more help, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
“While some young people require detention, reforms have aimed to avoid detention at the outset for others; shorten the length of time a juvenile remains in a detention setting; provide alternatives to detention; implement community-based supervision, reduce disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system, and improve conditions of confinement,” the NCSL reported. “Alternatives include supervised release programs, such as home detention, electronic monitoring, day and evening reporting centers, and local treatment programs. Risk assessment instruments used at detention screenings analyze a young person’s level of risk and individual treatment needs, and guide decisions about detention, supervision, and services.”
Schools themselves can work to reduce the harm of disciplinary action within their walls. Some have implemented alternatives to suspension such as meditation, quiet reading in libraries, or even special counseling for those most likely to present disciplinary problems. The latter group includes kids experiencing bullying, growing up in poverty, or living with an emotional or attention disorder that can prompt restlessness.
Providing these students compassionate care within their schools is cheaper, easier, more positive, and — according to teachers, students, and administrators alike — more effective.
Patterson High School in Baltimore, Maryland, is one of the most diverse high schools on the East Coast in terms of race, national origin, first language, and citizenship status. The school launched a Mindful Moment Room in 2017 to address disciplinary needs in a more positive way. There, children engage in active listening and discussion, practice yoga, learn breathing exercises, and develop skills that allow them to rein in their emotions before they act out.
Within the first year, suspensions, verbal disruptions, and physical violence at Patterson fell by more than 50%. School attendance increased by 3%, average student GPAs increased by .5%, and the percentage of students who moved up to the next grade on time rather than being held back or repeating a year increased by 19 points. A nearby elementary school employed the same program in 2013, and four years later, officials reported zero suspensions since its inception.
“The program helped me get over what people were saying about me and just move on,” one Patterson sophomore said. A teacher echoed her student: “Since we’ve been doing [the Mindful Moment Room] here at Patterson, it doesn’t really take away from what we’re trying to do, and the students are better able to get their work done.”
It’s a far cry from the experience Aguila and Prather recalled for Suspension Stories and the reality that millions of public school students face each day. All children deserve to feel safe and supported. If they can’t expect that in the educational institution where they spend most of their time, where can they? Certainly not prison.