Jun 5 10:00 AM

5 things to know about the school-to-prison pipeline

In the latest episode of Fault Lines, correspondent Wab Kinew goes to Texas to examine whether increased police presence in schools and the adoption of zero tolerance policies are putting some students on a path from the classroom to prison. "School-to-Prison Pipeline" airs on Al Jazeera America, Saturday, June 7, 2014, at 7p ET/4p PT.

The "school-to-prison pipeline" refers to a national trend wherein children with behavioral problems in the classroom are funneled from public schools into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Here are five things you should know about it:

1. A ninth-grade student who is suspended from school is twice as likely to drop out of high school as his or her classmates.

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.

2. Based on a study of schools in Indiana, 95 percent of suspensions are 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.

3. Black students are more than three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white peers.

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.

4. The rate of suspensions and expulsions in secondary schools has increased by 40 percent in the last four decades.

Initially instituted as a response to the 1999 Columbine school shooting, zero tolerance polices have become a controversial method of discipline in American schools. School suspensions and expulsions are now commonly used as responses to an array of student infractions. 

Dozens of instances have incurred harsh penalties, sparking outrage. These range from a 10-year-old making his fingers look like a gun, to a first-grader kissing a girl on the hand, and a second-grader chewing a pop-tart into the shape of a gun.

—"Zero tolerance overkill?" March 11, 2014.

5. The Obama administration recognizes the school-to-prison pipeline as a national issue and has offered guidelines for schools to follow with regard to discipline of students.

The Obama administration on Wednesday issued new recommendations on classroom discipline that seek to end the apparent disparities in how students are punished for violating school rules after data found minorities were more likely to face disciplinary action or arrest.

The guidelines, which came from the Justice and Education departments, called for improving school environments by training staff, engaging families and teaching students how to resolve conflicts. They also urged schools to understand their obligations under civil rights laws, and outlined a host of federal resources regarding school discipline...

Attorney General Eric Holder said the problem is frequently the result of well-intentioned "zero-tolerance" policies that too often inject the criminal-justice system into the resolution of problems. Zero-tolerance policies, which became popular in the 1990s, often spell out uniform and swift punishment for offenses such as truancy, smoking or carrying a weapon. Violators can lose classroom time or become saddled with a criminal record for these and other offenses.

Read the full articles

The school-to-prison pipeline: By the numbers

Some call it one of the greatest civil rights challenges today, and it’s found across the country

Law & Justice
Race & Ethnicity

Government offers guidelines to end school-to-prison pipeline

Recommendations on discipline follow criticism of policies that send minority students into the court system

Department of Justice
Department of Education
Civil Rights

Zero tolerance overkill?

The Stream discusses whether harsh punitive measures for minor misconduct are doing more harm than good to our kids.

Law & Justice

More on School-to-Prison Pipeline

Black students and the school-to-prison pipeline

In Wake County, North Carolina, black students make up 92 percent of long-term suspensions


Dept. of Education: Racial disparities evident as early as preschool. Why?

Black students are more likely to be suspended from U.S. public schools, even as preschoolers

Department of Education


Crime, Law & Justice

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