What the School-to-Prison Pipeline is Not

Misconceptions abound concerning what exactly the “school-to-prison pipeline” is. So instead of trying to concisely define it here, I would like to submit three things that the school-to-prison pipeline is not.

  1. The school-to-prison pipeline is not a matter of opinion. The school-to-prison pipeline is a metaphor to describe decades of observational research and quantifiable data relating specifically to school discipline policies and enforcement. That data bears out that the two greatest contributors to the school-to-prison pipeline are zero tolerance discipline policies and police presence in schools. I have written about zero tolerance policies here. The only legitimate way to deny the existence of the school-to-prison pipeline is to dispute the data. It is not an open discussion concerning all the possible societal factors contributing to the over-incarceration of black and brown youth. It is empirical evidence of a rather definitive nature.


  1. The school-to-prison pipeline is not a study in black culture. If you think it is, you are having a different conversation, a conversation that at best is rife with implicit bias. The school-to-prison pipeline is about our educational institutions contributing to the over-incarceration of people of color. It is about the criminalization of students of color in a misguided, decades-long, attempt to reduce school violence, “Why School Resource Officers Are Not Welcome in My Classroom.” Similarly, the school-to-prison pipeline is not a black problem. If anything, the school-to-prison pipeline could be described as a white problem, a problem created by white people, and a problem which white people are largely responsible for eradicating.
  1. The school-to-prison pipeline is not a “home life” problem. It’s not called the “home-to-prison” pipeline. The thing that created the school-to-prison pipeline is called institutional racism. Poverty did not create it. Single parent households did not create it. And perhaps most importantly, a lack of discipline at home did not create it. To blame parents or “home life” for the school-to-prison pipeline is to ignore the data in favor of our own implicit biases that do not challenge our systems and power structures. Culturally responsive teaching is a good tool for combating teacher implicit bias in the classroom. You can read more about culturally responsive teaching here. Unfortunately, “parent blaming” is most often utilized by educators as a survival technique or defense mechanism against the stress of dealing with students with persistent discipline issues.


Only when our schools have adequately dealt with institutional racism and teacher implicit bias can we then focus on “wrap around” services that assist students and their families with everyday needs. Our best efforts in community programs will not keep black and brown students out of the prison industrial complex as long as we continue to discipline, suspend, and expel them at disproportionate rates compared to their white classmates.


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