The “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to “the nationwide trend where poor and minority students are funneled out of the education system and into the criminal justice system.” These “pushout” policies are widely seen to have resulted from “zero tolerance” school disciplinary policies, which can be traced in part to the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994. That act aimed to eliminate guns from schools and tied federal funding to mandatory suspensions for students who brought weapons to schools. The policy was often extended to drugs and then “spiraled out of control” to cover all manner of disciplinary violations, leading to a contemporary landscape in which students are expelled from school or arrested for violations that a generation before would have sent them to the back of the classroom or the principal’s office.
Zero tolerance policies, initially created as a part of the war on drugs and rooted in the "broken windows" theory for policing communities, were later applied to schools in the mid-1990s. And the US prison population skyrocketed, partly as a result of minor drug arrests. The overuse of out-of-school suspensions for minor discipline code infractions ultimately led to hundreds of students a year falling into the school-to-prison pipeline.
During slave times, Southern plantation owners viewed black children as property to be disciplined, controlled, and nurtured into docile and productive adult laborers. Slave masters, rather than the state, typically whipped or used other forms of corporal punishment to discipline disobedient black children. After Emancipation, delinquent black children in the South faced convict leasing, lynching, and other forms of physical abuse.
There is little dispute that racial disparities pervade the contemporary American juvenile justice system. The persistent over-representation of youth of color in the system suggests that scientifically supported notions of diminished culpability of youth are not applied consistently across races. Youths’ psychosocial deficiencies persist well into late adolescence and even early adulthood. Deficiencies in psychosocial development tend to cause youth to underestimate the risks involved in a given course of conduct, focus heavily on the present while failing to consider the future, and encounter difficulty regulating their emotions and controlling their conduct.
Compared to adults, adolescents often make impetuous and ill-considered decisions, are susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, and have a limited capacity to identify and weigh the short- and long-term consequences of their choices. Empirical evidence demonstrates, peer presence makes youth significantly more likely than adults to take risks and engage in antisocial behavior, with susceptibility to peer pressure peaking around age fourteen and then declining slowly during late adolescence. As most youth mature, however, they age out of delinquent behavior and rarely persist in a life of crime. Few go on to become “life-course-persistent” offenders as adults.
Disparities in the incarceration of black children have been documented since the nineteenth century. Casting the “crime problem” as primarily a poor, black male problem, politicians targeted black men and exploited racially tinged perceptions of crime for political advantage.” Black youth, who the media and conservative politicians demonized, became the prime targets of the war on crime and the war on drugs.
Today racial disparities still pervade the contemporary American juvenile justice system. Although black youth comprised only 16% of all youth in the United States from 2002 to 2004, they accounted for 28% of all juvenile arrests, 37% of detained youth, 34% of youth formally processed by the juvenile court, 35% of youth judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of youth sent to adult state prison.
Some teachers and administrators favor zero tolerance policies because they remove difficult students from school; administrators perceive zero tolerance policies as fast-acting interventions that send a clear, consistent message that certain behaviors are not acceptable in the school.
In 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties Union reported that many New York City public school students were getting arrested for minor school disciplinary infractions like being late to class or bringing a cellular phone to school. In September 2007, a California high-school student was arrested for failing to clean up all the crumbs after dropping cake on the floor, and her friend was arrested for recording the incident on her cell phone.
In 2007, there were already 19,000 student resource officers in schools. Some schools have gone as far as to have police precincts outfitted with holding stations on their campuses, or completely transferring control over school safety to local police departments.
The school-to-prison-pipeline channels students into the criminal justice system both directly and indirectly. Suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and more likely to be suspended again, repeat a grade, drop out, and become involved in the juvenile justice system. A suspension or expulsion can also result in a student being sent to an alternative placement for students with behavioral problems. Such a placement often leads to a child dropping out of school, after which they are three-and-a-half times more likely to become incarcerated than high school graduates.
The pipeline operates even more directly, however, through the increasing collaboration between school officials and law enforcement in disciplining students. Many schools employ police officers as security guards or “school resource officers,” or call the police for behavior that would formerly have been dealt within the school, meaning that the first response to a disciplinary issue is by an officer of the criminal justice system.
One of the most troubling aspects of the school-to-prison pipeline is the extent to which it disproportionally impacts students of color. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released results of a study of every public school in the country showing grave disparities. The study showed that “African American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended.
A report by the African American Policy Forum titled "Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected" revealed that in New York City alone, young Black females were more than 10 times as likely to be involved in disciplinary cases than their white counterparts. Young Black males were six times as likely. The statistics hold true for almost any major school district in the United States.
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