Stop the School-to-Prison Pipeline

By The Editors of Rethinking Schools

Illustrator: Seth Tobacman

Illustration: Seth Tobacman

“Every man in my family has been locked up. Most days I feel like it doesn’t matter what I do, how hard I try—that’s my fate, too.”
—11th-grade African American student, Berkeley, Calif.

This young man isn’t being cynical or melodramatic; he’s articulating a terrifying reality for many of the children and youth sitting in our classrooms—a reality that is often invisible or misunderstood. Some have seen the growing numbers of security guards and police in our schools as unfortunate but necessary responses to the behavior of children from poor, crime-ridden neighborhoods. But what if something more ominous is happening? What if many of our students—particularly our African American, Latina/o, Native American, and Southeast Asian children—are being channeled toward prison and a lifetime of second-class status?

We believe that this is the case, and there is ample evidence to support that claim. What has come to be called the “school-to-prison pipeline” is turning too many schools into pathways to incarceration rather than opportunity. This trend has extraordinary implications for teachers and education activists. It affects everything from what we teach to how we build community in our classrooms, how we deal with conflicts with and among our students, how we build coalitions, and what demands we see as central to the fight for social justice education.

What Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

The school-to-prison pipeline begins in deep social and economic inequalities, and has taken root in the historic shortcomings of schooling in this country. The civil and human rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s spurred an effort to “rethink schools” to make them responsive to the needs of all students, their families, and communities. This rethinking included collaborative learning environments, multicultural curriculum, student-centered, experiential pedagogy—we were aiming for education as liberation. The back-to-basics backlash against that struggle has been more rigid enforcement of ever more alienating curriculum.

The “zero tolerance” policies that today are the most extreme form of this punishment paradigm were originally written for the war on drugs in the early 1980s, and later applied to schools. As Annette Fuentes explains, the resulting extraordinary rates of suspension and expulsion are linked nationally to increasing police presence, checkpoints, and surveillance inside schools.

As police have set up shop in schools across the country, the definition of what is a crime as opposed to a teachable moment has changed in extraordinary ways. In one middle school we’re familiar with, a teacher routinely allowed her students to take single pieces of candy from a big container she kept on her desk. One day, several girls grabbed handfuls. The teacher promptly sent them to the police officer assigned to the school. What formerly would have been an opportunity to have a conversation about a minor transgression instead became a law enforcement issue.

Children are being branded as criminals at ever-younger ages. Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia, a recent report by Youth United for Change and the Advancement Project, offers an example:

Robert was an 11-year-old in 5th grade who, in his rush to get to school on time, put on a dirty pair of pants from the laundry basket. He did not notice that his Boy Scout pocketknife was in one of the pockets until he got to school. He also did not notice that it fell out when he was running in gym class. When the teacher found it and asked whom it belonged to, Robert volunteered that it was his, only to find himself in police custody minutes later. He was arrested, suspended, and transferred to a disciplinary school.

Early contact with police in schools often sets students on a path of alienation, suspension, expulsion, and arrests. George Galvis, an Oakland, Calif., prison activist and youth organizer, described his first experience with police at his school: “I was 11. There was a fight and I got called to the office. The cop punched me in the face. I looked at my principal and he was just standing there, not saying anything. That totally broke my trust in school as a place that was safe for me.”

Galvis added: “The more police there are in the school, walking the halls and looking at surveillance tapes, the more what constitutes a crime escalates. And what is seen as ‘how kids act’ vs. criminal behavior has a lot to do with race. I always think about the fistfights that break out between fraternities at the Cal campus, and how those fights are seen as opposed to what the police see as gang-related fights, even if the behavior is the same.”

Mass Incarceration: A Civil Rights Crisis

The growth of the school-to-prison pipeline is part of a larger crisis. Since 1970, the U.S. prison population has exploded from about 325,000 people to more than 2 million today. According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, this is a phenomenon that cannot be explained by crime rates or drug use. According to Human Rights Watch (Punishment and Prejudice: Racial Disparities in the War on Drugs, 2000) although whites are more likely to violate drug laws than people of color, in some states black men have been admitted to prison on drug charges at rates 20 to 50 times greater than those of white men. Latina/os, Native Americans, and other people of color are also imprisoned at rates far higher than their representation in the population. Once released, former prisoners are caught in a web of laws and regulations that make it difficult or impossible to secure jobs, education, housing, and public assistance—and often to vote or serve on juries. Alexander calls this permanent second-class citizenship a new form of segregation.

The impact of mass incarceration is devastating for children and youth. More than 7 million children have a family member incarcerated, on probation, or on parole. Many of these children live with enormous stress, emotional pain, and uncertainty. Luis Esparza describes the impact on his life in Project WHAT!’s Resource Guide for Teens with a Parent in Prison or Jail:

After [my dad] went to jail I kept to myself a lot—became the quiet kid that no one noticed and no one really cared about. At one point I didn’t even have any friends. No one talked to me, so I didn’t have to say anything about my life. . . . Inside I feel sad and angry. In this world, no one wants to see that, so I keep it all to myself. (See Haniyah’s Story and Sokolower.)

Revising the Curriculum

As we at Rethinking Schools began to study and discuss these issues, we realized the huge implications for curriculum. Many of us, as social justice educators, have developed strong class activities teaching the Civil Rights Movement. But few of us teach regularly about the racial realities of the current criminal justice system. Textbooks mostly ignore the subject. For example, Pearson Prentice Hall’s United States History is a hefty 1,264 pages long, but says nothing about the startling growth in the prison population in the past 40 years.

Mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline are among the primary forms that racial oppression currently takes in the United States. As such, they deserve a central place in the curriculum. We need to bring this all-too-common experience out of the shadows and make it as visible in the curriculum as it is in so many students’ lives. As Alexander begins to explore in our interview, it is a challenge to engage students in these issues in ways that build critical thinking and determination rather than cynicism or despair, but a challenge we urgently need to take on. Aparna Lakshmi, a Boston high school teacher, offers an example.

‘Accountability’ and Criminalization

The school-to-prison pipeline is really a classroom-to-prison pipeline. A student’s trajectory to a criminalized life often begins with a curriculum that disrespects children’s lives and that does not center on things that matter.

Last spring Federal Policy, ESEA Reauthorization, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline, a collaborative study by research, education, civil rights, and juvenile justice organizations, linked the policies of No Child Left Behind and the “accountability” movement to the pipeline. According to George Wood, executive director of the Forum for Education and Democracy:

By focusing accountability almost exclusively on test scores and attaching high stakes to them, NCLB has given schools a perverse incentive to allow or even encourage students to leave.

A FairTest factsheet cites findings that schools in Florida gave low-scoring students longer suspensions than high-scoring students for similar infractions, while in Ohio students with disabilities were twice as likely to be suspended out of school than their peers. A recent report from the Advancement Project noted that, since the passage of NCLB in 2002, 73 of the largest 100 districts in the United States “have seen their graduation rates decline—often precipitously. Of those 100 districts, which serve 40 percent of all students of color in the United States, 67 districts failed to graduate two-thirds of their students.”

The more that schools—and now individual teachers—are assessed, rewarded, and fired on the basis of student test scores, the more incentive there is to push out students who bring down those scores. And the more schools become test-prep academies as opposed to communities committed to everyone’s success, the more hostile and regimented the atmosphere becomes—the more like prison. (This school-as-prison culture is considerably more common in schools populated by children of color in poor communities as opposed to majority-white, middle-class schools, creating what Jonathan Kozol calls “educational apartheid.”) The rigid focus on test prep and scripted curriculum means that teachers need students to be compliant, quiet, in their seats, and willing to learn by rote for long periods of time. Security guards, cops in the hall, and score-conscious administrations suspend and expel “problem learners.”

Schools without compassion or understanding occupy communities instead of serve them. As our society accelerates punishment as a central paradigm—from death penalty executions to drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen—the regimentation and criminalization of our children, particularly children of color, can only be seen as training for the future.

Linda Christensen describes the dangerous pull of high-stakes testing on even the most seasoned teachers, and the powerful role of student-centered curriculum as resistance.

Education Activists and the Pipeline

As teachers and education activists, many of us are active in the fight to save and transform public schools—building campaigns to end standardized testing, to protect our union rights, to prevent the privatization of the public school system. At education conferences, there are often well-attended workshops on the criminalization of youth or related topics.

But the movement to end the school-to-prison pipeline and the movement to defend and transform public education are too often separate. This must be one movement—for social justice education—that encompasses both an end to the school-to-prison pipeline and the fight to save and transform public education. We cannot build safe, creative, nurturing schools and criminalize our children at the same time.

Teachers, students, parents, and administrators have begun to fight back against zero tolerance policies—pushing to get rid of zero tolerance laws, and creating alternative approaches to safe school communities that rely on restorative justice and community building instead of criminalization. (See Haga.) A critical piece of that struggle is defying the regimen of scripted curriculum and standardized tests, and building in its place creative, empowering school cultures centered on the lives and needs of our students and their families.

Some of the most exciting work with youth is being built around campaigns to stop police harassment in schools and on the streets, stop gang injunction legislation that criminalizes young people on the basis of what they wear or where they live, and increase budgets for education and social services instead of law and order. Youth provide leadership in these movements in ways that are different from what we often see in classrooms. Learning from these campaigns and making the critical connections to our own work will enable us to build a viable, principled movement for public education.

Our resistance grows from classrooms that are grounded in our students’ lives—academically rigorous and also participatory, critical, culturally sensitive, experiential, kind, and joyful. When combined with a determination to fight the school-to-prison pipeline at every level, that resistance has enormous capacity to build and sustain true social justice education.