Ending the School to Prison Pipeline

A Chicago probationary police officer watches as students leave elementary school.
A Chicago probationary police officer watches as students leave elementary school.  Scott Olson/Getty Images


If we are serious about tackling our nation’s mass incarceration problem, we absolutely need to double down nationally on efforts to stop criminalizing school children’s behavior. Much has been written in recent years about what has been dubbed the school to prison pipleline, where kids acting out at school in typical kid fashion suddenly find themselves suspended, expelled, or in trouble with the criminal justice system. This pipeline must be shut down, and it is heartening to see that Illinois is passing a strong bill to reverse the “zero tolerance” policy behind the over-use of punitive school discipline.

What makes the school to prison pipeline particularly disturbing is the rate at which students of color (and disabled students) are singled out for suspension, expulsion, or criminal consequences. An upsetting interactive chart produced in April 2015 by The Center for Public Integrity uses U.S. Department of Education data to show state by state how black, Latino and special-needs students are almost universally referred to the police and courts disproportionately more frequently. In Chicago, the disparity between suspended black and white students is one of the highest in the country: during the 2012-13 school year, Chicago Public Schools issued 32 out-of-school suspensions for every 100 black students, as compared to just five for every 100 white students. Although just 41% of Chicago Public Schools students are black, 75% of all out-of-school suspensions in 2012-13 were imposed on black students, who were 30 times more likely to be expelled than white students. Those are truly appalling statistics that demonstrate a systemic failure.

The more egregious examples of criminalizing children’s behaviors frequently make the news because they are, frankly, shocking. In a Chicago Public School, a first grader was handcuffed for an hour and threatened with arrest for talking in class; a highschooler was suspended for three days for forgetting his glasses and being unable to participate in a project. Other outrageous examples around the country include: the three nine-year-old girls and an eight-year-old boy who got into a fight at their Baltimore elementary school and were arrested by real police; the six year old cuffed and arrested for throwing a tantrum at her elementary school in Milledgeville, Georgia; the seven-year-old at a Bronx, New York, elementary school who was cuffed, taken to the police station, and interrogated under suspicion of taking $5 from a classmate (though another kid later confessed). The zero tolerance stories go on and on. To try to put some numbers on this, in 2011, there were about 4600 arrests of minors on Chicago Public School grounds, but of those, only 14% were actually for serious crimes (robbery, burglary, fights with serious injuries, etc.).

The response in Illinois, with passage of groundbreaking legislation to end the era of zero tolerance statewide, is encouraging. Under the new legislation schools will only be allowed to suspend, expel or refer students to an alternative school if all other “appropriate and available” alternatives are exhausted. Thus, suspensions and expulsions will become the last resort, instead of the first response. The legislation also puts an end to the use of all disciplinary fines and fees – students being forced to pay money fines for possession of chewing gum, violations of dress code, tardiness, etc., and incurring even further discipline if unable to pay their fines. Taking a less punitive approach, the new Illinois legislation emphasizes providing struggling students with academic and behavioral supports and working to make school more accessible to all.

What makes this legislation particularly inspiring is that the bill was created and lobbied for by a group of mostly high school students from Chicago, known as VOYCE (Voices of Youth in Chicago Education). Their video, below, is a succinct and powerful reminder of the very real toll exacted when we suspend, expel, and criminalize our youth.


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