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The School-to-Prison Pipeline, Explained

When a student at Spring Valley High School, South Carolina captured a cellphone video of a police officer flipping over a student and her desk, then throwing the student across the room, the video quickly got national attention: people were alarmed that a police officer in a school would do that to a teenager who didn’t pose a threat.

But to others, it was less surprising that a police officer would behave so aggressively in a school: because school discipline and the criminal justice system have already been intertwined, in a phenomenon civil-rights advocates call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Especially for older students, trouble at school can lead to their first contact with the criminal justice system. And in many cases, schools themselves are the ones pushing students into the juvenile justice system — often by having students arrested at school by School Resource Officers like the one in Spring Valley.

Juvenile crime rates are plummeting, and the juvenile incarceration rate dropped 41 percent between 1995 and 2010. But school discipline policies are moving in the opposite direction: out-of-school suspensions have increased about 10 percent since 2000. They have more than doubled since the 1970s. And it’s hardly racially balanced: Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, according to the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, and research in Texas found students who have been suspended are more likely to be held back a grade and drop out of school entirely.