Data continues prove that the School-to-Prison Pipeline is not just a theory. Read about the latest research & recommendations for reversing the trend.

It’s a jarring thought, but there’s mounting evidence of the correlation between the disciplinary methods used in primary schools and the chances that a student will end up in the criminal justice system. In an article in The News & Observer, professor Jane Wettach of Duke Law School told an audience in North Carolina that,

“Students who are suspended are more likely to drop out of school and more likely to enter the juvenile justice system or adult criminal court.”

Luckily, there is a nationwide response surfacing that attempts to disrupt this correlation between traditional school disciplines and future imprisonment rates. This emerging belief is that if we can lessen suspension rates in schools, we’ll see fewer students in prison.

That’s not to say that schools should do away with discipline all together. However, schools must look objectively at the statistical data revealing the ramifications of this pipeline and try newer, evidence-based school discipline alternatives.

Defaulting to hardline disciplines such as suspension and expulsion begin to escalate ordinary misbehaviors into criminal acts.

Extreme disciplinary policies—like the Zero Tolerance policies of the 90’s—criminalizes actions that may be defiant yet are typical teenage behaviors. A Center for Public Integrity investigation discovered that Virginia state schools had referred misbehaving students to law enforcement at almost triple the national rate. Thousands of students, many of them as young as middle school, were sent into the criminal justice system for infractions like disorderly behavior or “obstruction of justice,” which for one student meant “clenching her fist at a school cop.”

This article in The News & Observer introduces readers to Thena Robinson-Mock, a lawyer and director of Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track, a program based in Washington, D.C. She highlights how certain laws with nebulous language criminalize teenage behavior, citing a law in South Carolina that makes it a misdemeanor “to act in an obnoxious manner” on school property. The punishment for this infraction can be severe, carrying a fine up to $1,000 or 90 days in jail.

As a result, traditional disciplinary policies are referring more students to the criminal system than ever before.

Virginia schools are facing a tremendous challenge to shut down the pipeline to prison. On average in the state’s schools, for every 1,000 students, 16 are sent to police for misbehaviors, with some schools referring as much as 228 per 1,000. (According to the Center for Public Integrity Investigation.)

“We have come to culturally accept that the proper way to discipline a child is to kick them out of school,” Professor Wettach explains. “These are real kids with real lives and suffer real consequences when they are kept out of school.”

We’re encouraged by what schools are doing to stem the tide of this growing problem.

California’s school districts have been leading the way in changing their disciplinary practices. Huffington Post Education’s editor pointed to a study from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project showing that when multiple districts in the Golden State reduced the number of suspensions in their schools, academic performance improved.

The findings suggest that moving away from harsh disciplinary methods helps students achieve more and benefits the entire school. The study’s author and director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, Daniel Losen, shared with the Huffington Post that the data

“pushes back on the assumption that if you lower suspension rates bad things are going to happen. Where you tend to find higher-than-average achievement, you also find lower-than-average suspension rates.”

In North Carolina, District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch gave two key steps to stopping the trend to incarceration:

  1. Provide data to principals, parents, and teachers, and
  2. Train police officers who work in schools.

To meet this looming challenge, Virginia schools have begun creating “new agreements for schools and police department that limit officer intervention in student behavior problems.” In addition, some police officers, such as the Henrico County’s Chief of Police, have created new guidelines for school resource officers that promise to limit arrests on campuses.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a dangerously slippery slope, and a clear indicator that school suspensions can sometimes take an unfortunate turn for the worse. It’s time we look at the facts and begin to seriously scrutinize how we deal with school discipline. Putting an end to the school-to-prison pipeline is possible—and taking a hard look at alternatives to suspensions, like positive behavior reinforcement—is where we must start.

For the full study, visit The Civil Rights Project’s Closing the School Discipline Gap in California: Signs of Progress