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Lets Talk About The School To Prison Pipeline

Growing up, we are told to believe that the education system is built around the urgency to create quality and equal education: where the main priority is guiding students towards success. Witnessing countless times students pulled out of classes and shoved into police cars for petty infractions, however, it is clear that the education system offers a tarnished narrative. This malpractice is known as the "school-to-prison-pipeline" and is extremely prevalent in Black and Brown low-income communities. The “school-to-prison pipeline” phenomenon begins as early as preschool, where Black and Brown students were met with cruel zero-tolerance policies that assign predetermined punishments for violations of school rules, regardless of the situation or context of the behavior. The education system strictly punishes students of color at alarming rates through suspension and expulsion for minor disruptions; while their white peers, who commit the same or worse infractions, do not meet the same consequences. 

Punitive school policies can be traced back to the late 1980s when the perception of minorities was highly influenced by negative stereotypes  that viewed Black and Brown students as violent and threatening. The education system view students of color as potential violators rather than students deserving of guidance toward success. The “school-to-prison pipeline” also emerged through media coverage that exaggerated the extent of gang membership among Black and Brown youths, further intensifying the desire to keep them out of schools and into prisons. Media panic fueled by widely accepted stereotypes has allowed the education system to adopted zero-tolerance policies, which impose harsh disciplinary penalties that target students of color regardless of the seriousness of the infraction. Instead of schools being a pipeline towards opportunity, these students are being steered towards the gateway of incarceration.

Low-funded Black and Brown communities contained students with fewer parents with college degrees, fewer parents who can volunteer in the school, lack quality counselors, and have a harder time attracting qualified teachers, but have the funding for extreme school resource officer presence. Institutional racism in the education system accounts for black students being 3 times more likely than white students to be suspended and/or expelled, black girls being 6 times more likely than white girls to receive disciplinary referrals, and black students making up 31% of arrests in the 2015-2016 school year, despite making up 15% of the student body. With a lack of funding, resources, and care, students of color do not experience the same education as white students in wealthier communities and are less likely to move on to higher education. 

Some school districts have adopted criminalized truancy, which allows schools to penalize students who are absent from school with court fees that can lead to jail time. The education system has the power to incarcerate students who are already struggling in low-income families for infractions that do not deserve the harsh punishment. Truancy punishments are being enforced disproportionately against low-income and students of color with absolutely no regard for the long-term consequences these actions cause on their futures. Schools handing out fines to low-income students and families do not put them in a better economic situation and prevents the student from engaging with their education. In fact, fining and incarcerating students with criminalized truancy only exacerbate existing financial hardships.

History of segregation concentrated poverty, and stereotypes all influence how schools and law enforcement treat students who “misbehave”. The disciplinary disparities between racial groups reflect institutional racism in the education system that racially isolates low-income minority communities with harsh and unfair policies. Students of color experience the most exclusionary means of discipline that keeps them in a continuous cycle of oppression. Cultural deficit thinking, the assumption that minority low-income students perform poorly in school, is also exploited through zero-tolerance policies by perpetuating that perception that minorities do not care about their education, which makes them a vulnerable target to push out of classrooms.  Zero-tolerance policies do not take into account background factors that influence student’s behavior and do not address root causes. Instead, zero-tolerance policies punish students for circumstances they cannot control and does not provide additional education or counseling services to help students overcome these obstacles. In order to dismantle the “school-to-prison pipeline”, we must support local grassroots organizations and demand that school districts invest in school resources rather than a police presence. 




Lidia (She/Her) is a junior majoring in Digital Communications and Media. When she is not petting dogs on the sidewalk or re-watching Harry Potter, she is scribbling away on any surface she can find. Lidia is passionate about writing critical and culturally relevant content.
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