Clogging the School to Prison Pipeline

Michael Bendok | MARCH 31, 2020 

In Arizona, private prisons use the reading scores of 3rd graders to determine the number of prison beds they will need ten years later. Although this may seem like an unusual way for prisons to calculate future inventory needs, it is quite logical. Sociology professor Donald Hernandez reports that 85%of all juvenile offenders have literacy deficits. Additionally, he found that 40%of 3rd graders cannot even read at a competent level. Too often, American policy makers have attributed these facts to the systematic flaws of the American education system, highlighting underfunded districts and incompetent teachers.


However, if that were the case,the problem would have been solved by a simple funding increase. Thus, I believe that the problem lies not in the competency of our amazing and dedicated teachers, but in the severity of punishments. Specifically, zero-tolerance policies, coupled with reasonable suspicion, has fueled the school to-prison-pipeline for decades. The term "school-to-prison pipeline"was coined by education reform activists to describe a clear pattern, where disadvantaged students are pushed out of school, and into the criminal justice system. The "pipeline" is the result of institutions' neglect in addressing students as individuals who might need educational assistance, and instead addressing them through unreasonable punishment.

According to the Harvard Law Review in 2015, almost all school districts have expanded the policy of reasonable suspicion, originally enacted to focus on "truly dangerous and criminal behavior", to include "infractions that pose little or no safety concerns". In the status quo, students are disproportionately punished for trivial violations. And because state laws also require schools to report these infractions to law enforcement agencies, students are punished in courtrooms rather than principals' offices. The School-Justice Partnership Task Force concurs in 2013, that 74%of arrests in public schools are for misdemeanors. This is detrimental to education, because Washington University Law quantifies that an arrest nearly doubles the odds of dropping out, and if coupled with a court appearance, nearly quadruples the odds of dropout, and significantly increases the likelihood of future interaction with the criminal justice system.

In our competitive society, it is imperative that students stay in school, receive a sound education, and graduate. However, the current system hinders our ability as a country to move forward. The only way to stop the school-to-prison pipeline is to eliminate zero tolerance policies. Furthermore,the reasonable suspicion standard must only be only applied to "truly dangerous and criminal behavior," as it has in the past. Students should be learning in classrooms to be the next generation of leaders,not sitting behind bars contemplating, on how their schools have failed them. The moral fabric of our country is woven with compassion, morality, and forgiveness. It is time we reflect these values in our education system.