Jan 23 3:00 PM

The school-to-prison pipeline: By the numbers

A police officer directs school buses in Marlboro Township, N.J.
Doug Hood/AP

June 5, 2014 Update:

The presence of police officers in schools has increased dramatically in the last 20 years, and as a result, so has the number of students receiving misdemeanor and felony charges. African-American and Latino youth appear to bear the brunt of zero-tolerance policies and out-of-school suspensions. Fault Lines correspondent Wab Kinew traveled to Texas, where being late for class can get you sent to jail, to examine the difficulties of disrupting what the U.S. government now refers to as the school-to-prison pipeline.

In January, as part of Getting Schooled, an America Tonight special series on some of the biggest issues in U.S. education, we looked at where and how the school-to-prison pipeline is playing out throughout the country.

For a preview of the Fault Lines episode, tune in to America Tonight Thursday at 9 p.m. ET/6 PT. Catch the entire episode Saturday at 7 p.m. ET/4 PT. 


At a luncheon honoring Martin Luther King Day on Monday, NAACP attorney Monique Lin-Luse took the stage in Salt Lake City and urged the attendees to honor the iconic leader’s legacy by taking on “one of the greatest civil rights challenges today.”

She was talking about the school-to-prison pipeline. Minority students are more likely to be steered from graduation by harsh school punishments — suspensions, expulsions and even arrests — that leave them disaffected, more prone to drop out and entangled in the criminal justice system. The problem is so systemic that the Obama administration issued new recommendations on classroom discipline earlier this month, geared toward ending the gaping disparity.

As part of this week's Getting Schooled series, correspondent Sarah Hoye traveled to Wake County, N.C., which advocates say has one of the largest school-to-prison pipelines in the country. What she uncovered is just a slice of what some researchers and educators argue has been going on around the country for years. How prevalent is the pipeline? And what’s to blame? America Tonight broke it down.

In Wake County, 40 percent of black students caught with cellphones were suspended last year, compared with 17 percent of white students

Jason Langberg, the supervising attorney of Advocates for Children Services.
America Tonight

Jason Langberg, the supervising attorney of Advocates for Children Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, investigated the racial lopsidedness in student suspensions in Wake County. In an analysis of discipline data, he found that black students in the county’s schools were suspended five times as often as their white peers. But he said there’s no evidence to suggest that black students act up more often or more severely than white students. And this disparity is found not just in Wake County. 

Of four kids at Hinsdale South High School in Chicago caught smoking pot, the only one arrested was black

A math class at the Shelby County Juvenile Detention Center, in Memphis, Tenn.
Alan Spearman/AP

In the spring of 2012, a girl at Hinsdale South was caught smoking pot and confessed that she’d had three accomplices. The two girls in the group were suspended for five days; one boy denied the crime and wasn’t suspended. The only black student in the group, however, was arrested and pleaded guilty to a drug ordinance charge. This is one example of a much larger trend in Chicago’s schools, uncovered in a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigation. The newspaper found that school discipline was often inconsistent and even arbitrary and that black and Hispanic students were far more likely to be referred to police. 

Nationally, black students are more than three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white peers

A weeklong military-style program at Sorter Elementary School in Benton Harbor, Mich., for students who have been expelled or suspended.
Don Campbell/AP

Across the country, the race gap in student punishments is enormous, according to Department of Education civil rights data from 2011 to 2012. Black students without disabilities, as they're broken down in the data, are suspended or expelled three times as often as white students without disabilities. Students with disabilities, often emotional or behavioral disorders, are also extremely overrepresented in the ranks of the suspended. The government study adds that this disparity can’t be explained by more frequent or serious infractions by minority students. In a letter sent to school districts earlier this month, the Justice and Education Departments stated: “In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.”

Since the 1970s, suspensions of black secondary school students have increased at 11 times the rate of white students

A truancy task force in Richmond, Va., checks school-age children. Truancy is one of the nonviolent offenses that now automatically trigger suspensions at many schools.
Don Long/AP

Research has consistently shown that suspensions and expulsions have escalated dramatically since 1974, with disproportionately higher rates for minorities than their white peers. For example, a 2013 UCLA study of secondary school suspension found that the suspension rate increase of black students was 12.5 percentage points, compared with 1.1 percentage points for white students.

Critics charge that the rise of zero-tolerance policies helped fuel this racial divide. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, fears of drugs and violence in public schools compelled many to institute quicker and harsher mandatory punishments for particular offenses such as drugs, violence, alcohol and tobacco. Over time, the policies were also widely instituted for minor infractions, like tardiness, disobedience and insubordination.

Ninety-five percent of suspensions in Indiana in 2002 to 2003 were for minor offenses

Today, pipeline critics often cite that 95 percent of suspensions are for minor infractions, a statistic can be traced back to this 2004 study in Indiana by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. According to the study, only 5 percent of suspensions in Indiana concerned a more serious offense — drugs, weapons, alcohol or tobacco — from 2002 to 2003. More than half were for disruptive behavior.

If a student is suspended in ninth grade, he’s twice as likely to drop out of high school

Students walk down a hallway at Washington High School in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Argus Leader/AP

Multiple studies have found that out-of-school suspensions act as a primary predictor of whether a student will drop out before graduation. Researchers determined that suspensions lead students to be more absent, fail more courses and become generally more disengaged from their academic careers. In a 2012 John Hopkins University analysis, researchers followed more than 180,000 Florida students from ninth grade through high school and beyond. They discovered that after just one suspension in ninth grade, a student’s chances of graduating plummeted from 75 to 50 percent. 

In Texas, police officers in schools write more than 1,000 misdemeanor tickets a year

A student from Gladys Porter High School in Brownsville, Tex. is handcuffed for excessive truancy.
Christian Rodriguez/AP

Hand in hand with the zero-tolerance movement, many schools began cooperating more intimately with police. Thousands of districts paid local police agencies to send armed officers into schools, often with federal subsidies. And after the shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn., the Department of Justice announced it would spend nearly $45 million to place more armed police in schools across the country — a move advocated by the National Rifle Association. Supporters of the policy say it makes schools safer, but critics are skeptical, arguing that its greatest impact has been an explosion of arrests and misdemeanor charges for nonviolent infractions. The Texas figure, reported in The New York Times, comes from Deborah Fowler, deputy director of the legal center Texas Appleseed, who said the charges leave kids with whopping legal costs and sometimes a lasting record. 

An estimated 250,000s youth are tried, sentenced or incarcerated as adults every year in America

In the last few years, many states have moved to keep more young offenders in the juvenile justice system rather than put them in the adult system. But an enormous number of young offenders still wind up in the adult system, largely for nonviolent offenses. In New York and North Carolina, all 16- and 17-year-olds charged with a crime are automatically prosecuted as adults. This means students referred to police for a schoolyard scuffle or drug possession may face the full force of adult criminal justice — which could result in a record that could hurt their college and job prospects and disqualify them from financial aid. Without the support and counseling of juvenile facilities, studies show that these youths are more likely to become hardened criminals.  


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