Youth & the School-to-Prison Pipeline By Amelia Borrayo, Alex Cervantes, Isabella Marra, Jacqueline Yanez, and Noelia Ramirez

"When children attend schools that place a greater value on discipline and security than on knowledge and intellectual development, they are attending prep schools for prison." - Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003).
The School-to-Prison Pipeline, defined:

A term to describe how American kids get pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice system.

The disproportionate tendency of minors and young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds to become incarcerated because of increasingly harsh school and municipal policies.

History and Background

Land Use Zoning

1916: New York City implemented its first zoning code.

Hailing from Germany, the idea of Land Use Zoning proposes designating land according to its purpose — industrial, residential, and agricultural.

Zoning has helped to stabilize land values as certain areas are designated as a central location for specific industries.

Example: South Oakland was designated as an industrial area for ports and factories

Urban Renewal in the 1950s

Urban Renewal is described as the rehabilitation of city areas through the renovation of dilapidated buildings, or their replacement with new housing, public buildings, parks, roadways, industrial areas, etc.

This practice has historically created segregation and adverse conditions for people of color, including displacement from homes.

Urban renewal should be understood as a fundamental cause of today's health inequalities expressed by race and place.

Key Urban Renewal Policies:

  1. First Civilian Public Housing Program
  2. Subsidization of suburbs for white residents

Federal Housing Administration (FHA) - funded housing programs in which homes could only be sold to white individuals

Fair Housing Act

1968: The US passed the Fair Housing Act in an effort to eliminate housing discrimination, theoretically eliminating housing disparity

Too little, too late

Homes that were sold for $8,000 at the beginning of these discriminatory policies could now be sold for over $100,000

These homes were no longer affordable to POC that were excluded from the original subsidized price


Loss of economic mobility

Concentration of POC in ghettos and barrios

Valued less, seen as dangerous and unwanted, etc.

Under-Resourced Schools

The concentration of people of color in certain areas is not coincidental

Decreases in property tax leads to decreases in the quality of schools

Less resources means having to do more with less

The cycle of poverty

Faced with a lack of resources, people from low-income backgrounds are forced to develop a lifestyle designed for survival and turn away from taking risks that others are able to

Lack of opportunity and thus aspirations results in feelings of powerlessness and fatalism

Conditions of poverty remain from one generation to the next and it becomes increasingly difficult for new generations to break this cycle.

CA Prop 187 denies public education and health care to undocumented immigrants.

It is primary targeted at the Latino population, which is the fastest growing ethnic group in the USA.

Discussion: How have these teachers impacted communities of color? How have these conditions contributed to the school-to-prison pipeline?

the School as a criminalizing institution


  1. Knowing this history, how have these conditions contributed to the school-to-prison pipeline?
  2. Describe your experience at your middle and/or high school. Public or private? What did it look like in terms of design? Was there police presence, harsh disciplinary action, etc.? Did the faculty & staff foster a positive learning environment?

Design of Public School Campuses Mirrors Prison Grounds

Metal Detectors: In 2018, 94% of Indiana public schools requested handheld metal detectors to “improve school safety and security” (Chicago Tribune). The same discussion has been brought up in many other school districts across the country.

Barbed Wire Fences: In Coppell, Texas, the school district decided to enclose certain middle and high school facilities in barbed wire in order to keep “trespassers and vandalizers” off the school property (NBC).

Police Presence on School Grounds

Approximately 67% of high school students in the United States attend a public school with police presence.

Law enforcement officers are being handed the responsibility of policing adolescent behavioral issues.

Under-resourced schools are more likely to use police presence rather than school administration to carry out disciplinary action

"Broken Windows" Theory

The "broken windows" theory claims that crime is a disorder that, if not eliminated or controlled early on, increases like likelihood of individuals participating in more serious criminal activity later in life.

The belief is that signs of crime (i.e. broken windows, graffiti) further lead to crime.

This theory played a role in influencing the Zero Tolerance Policy

School Policy and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Grade Retention:

  • Negative effects include emotional adjustments and self-concept.
  • Students who are held back are more likely to dropout of school.

School Suspension and Expulsion:

  • Keeping students away from school only makes them more academically behind and increases the chances of them misbehaving.
  • It also creates a negative stigma. When student returns to classes they are viewed in a more negative way by others, including faculty and staff.

School Tracking:

  • Separating students by their academic ability has a bigger impact on students on the lower tracks and does not show any improvement on students on higher tracks.
  • Students on the low track get more behind over time and are less likely to receive resources that will help them succeed in school.

The Zero Tolerance Policy

Although zero tolerance policies vary between school districts/states, the central idea is that students will be punished for their actions through two main disciplinary techniques: suspension and expulsion.

Suspension and expulsion are used too often in public schools as punishment for minor offenses, disciplinary action that disproportionately affects black and brown students.


  1. What are the advantages and disadvantages of zero tolerance policies?
  2. Do you think that harsh punishment for small infractions is a good way to deter young children from committing more serious crimes?
  3. What are some better ways to stop/deter minor infractions in school than punishments?
Zero Tolerance and Mental Health

“Far from deterring bad behavior and improving educational outcomes, many zero-tolerance policies have created a pipeline where students are removed from school and often end up in the juvenile justice system.”

“Minorities and children with a mental illness disproportionately comprise the school to prison pipeline.”

  • Black students account for 40% of student expulsions in the U.S per year
  • Latinx students account for 70% of arrests made in school

“Zero-tolerance discipline policies intended to maintain safety in schools often target the students most in need of support and protection.”

Thompson, Katie. “Mental Health and The School to Prison Pipeline.” Shared Justice, Shared Justice, 5 Dec. 2017.

“Rather than reducing the likelihood of disruption, however, school suspension in general appears to predict higher future rates of misbehavior and suspension among those students who are suspended. In the long term, school suspension and expulsion are moderately associated with a higher likelihood of school dropout and failure to graduate on time.” - American Psychological Association

Criminalizing Children with Disabilities

According to the Department of Education, 25% of all children arrested in school have disabilities.

A 10-year old boy (Benjamin Haygood) with Autism from Florida getting arrested on April 12, 2017, for kicking and scratching a special education teacher 6 months earlier.

Black and Latinx students with disabilities are more likely to face suspensions/expulsions from school instead of receiving treatment. Their white counterparts are more likely to receive medical treatment/support instead of disciplinary actions.

In other words: white students are seen by society as suffering from ADHD and get the medical help they need, whereas Black and Latinx students are seen as criminals and/or destructive and are funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Education and Juvenile Justice

The United States does not have a national education system or juvenile justice system. Instead each state, district or territory has a different juvenile justice system and education system, but they all have similar outcomes.

Total number of youth incarcerated by each state

Juvenile Age Boundaries by State

States have different age boundaries that determine who can be considered a juvenile instead of an adult or if a child is too young to be charged with a crime.

  • In most states the upper age boundary is 17 (or up to 18) to be to be considered a juvenile. Five states (GA, MI, MO, TX and WI) have an upper age of 16.
  • Some states have established a lower age, but for most states have not. The lower age varies from 6 years old to 10 years old.
US Map of lower age boundaries by state in 2016
The Law and the Juvenile Justice System

1899: Illinois Juvenile Court Act created the first Juvenile court in the US. By 1925 all states, except Maine and Wyoming, had at least one juvenile court.

Because the juvenile justice system’s goal was rehabilitation instead of punishment, juvenile courts did not follow the same procedures as adult courts. The process was informal and many rights seemed unnecessary, including:

  • right to an attorney
  • the right to know the charges brought against them
  • the right to trial by jury
  • the right to confront one’s accuser

1967: In re Gault, 387 the Supreme Court held that children facing delinquency prosecution have many of the same legal rights as adults in criminal court, including the right to an attorney, the right to remain silent, the right to notice of the charges, and the right to a full hearing on the merits of the case.

1980s: Juveniles were frequently depicted as super-predators in the media, with the public being warned of danger and extreme violence. This rhetoric resulted in increasingly punitive laws put in place against minors.

Discussion: How have the following contributed to the hunting of certain youth (youth of color, disabled students, low income students, immigrants):

  1. States having jurisdiction over the education system and juvenile justice system?
  2. Rehabilitation vs Punitive measures?
  3. Super-predator rhetoric?
Federal Power and Funding in the Education and Juvenile Justice Systems

Through federal funding, the federal government has tried to keep states accountable.

Every Student Succeeds Act

This policy is meant to help improve the educational opportunity and outcomes of low-income students by providing federal funding to schools that do not get enough financial support through state or local funding, like wealthier communities do.

Some requirements include annual testing, accountability, and school improvement:

  • Schools are required to test students, from certain grades, annually.
  • Schools need to be evaluated by the state on academic and non-academic factors.
  • States need to provide support to the bottom 5 percent of schools who after being evaluated show that they are struggling.
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA)

For states be eligible for federal funding they need to comply with 4 core requirements.

1. Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders

Status offenses are only offenses to minors because they are underage and do not apply to adults (ex: skipping school, running away, breaking curfew).

Status offenders can not be put in secure detentions or confinement but can be detained for up to 24 hours under certain exceptions.

2. Adult Jail and Lock-Up Removal

Minors can only be held in adult jails under certain exceptions and for a limited amount of time. The exceptions include before and after court hearings, in rural areas or unsafe travel conditions. This does not apply to minors tried in adult court.

3. Sight and Sound Separation

If minors are placed in adult jails because of the exceptions, they can not have sight or sound contact with other adult detainees. They can not be put in a cell next to adults or share common facilities, like a dining facility.

4. Racial and Ethnic Disparities

States need to evaluate and work on improving the disproportionate contact of minors of color in any part of the juvenile justice system.

Education in Juvenile Justice Facilities

“In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” -- Brown v. Board of Education

Legally, no child can be denied the right to education, but education provided by juvenile justice facilities have been proven to be inadequate, failing to help juveniles during their time in the system. In a report by the Southern Education Foundation (SEF), it was stated that this failure is systematic. Even programs with passionate instructors and administrators have encountered obstacles that prevent them from creating adequate learning environments. Those barriers include:

  • a lack of timely, accurate assessments of student needs and learning levels available to teachers and updated throughout a student’s period in custody;
  • an absence of close coordination of learning and teaching from the first to last day across the whole period of a student’s custody;
  • inconsistent curricula;
  • the practice of essentially “one-room” schooling;
  • a lack of intensive, individualized learning assistance and support services;
  • a failure to integrate health and mental health support with academic teaching and learning;
  • lack of innovation and trained skill in delivering teaching and support; lack of supports during the transition back to a students’ local school and community; and
  • too often a profound lack of high expectations, high content, and high levels of support that are necessary for disadvantaged students to improve in any setting

According to the “Protecting the Civil Rights of Students in the Juvenile Justice System” report by U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights:

  • On average, one in seven juvenile justice facilities provide less than 20 hours per week of educational programming during the school year (less than four hours each day in a five-day week).
  • Teachers in juvenile justice facilities are more likely to be absent
  • Justice facilities are less likely to offer essential math and science courses
  • 65% of justice facilities offer Algebra I, compared to 88% of all high schools
  • 48% of justice facilities offer Geometry, compared to 84% of all high schools
  • 28% of justice facilities offer Algebra II, compared to 78% of all high schools
  • 8% of justice facilities offer Physics, compared to 60% of all high schools

2007 - US Second Chance Act: It has helped create programs for formerly incarcerated people and to make the reentry process easier. Most programs focus on vocational training and college, not on youth and their secondary education. Even though research has found that youth who are released from a juvenile justice system are less likely to get rearrested after 12 or 24 months, if they go back to school and attend regularly.

2014: U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice published “Guiding Principles for Providing High-Quality Education in Juvenile Justice Secure Care Settings.” The guidelines include five guiding principles and core activities that focus on “creating environments conducive to the teaching and learning process, enhancing academic and social-emotional supports, promoting positive educational outcomes for all system-involved students, and lessening the likelihood of youths reentering the justice system” (p. iv).

“The US incarcerated more children than any other developed country, 54,000 at any given night. Americans pay $8 billion a year to incarcerate kids...”
Potential Solutions to the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Ending the Zero Tolerance Policy

Maya Angelou Public Charter School in Washington, D.C.

Hiring more counselors in schools rather than police/security

Electing officials that will actually work towards creating change in our educational and juvenile justice systems

Implicit bias training

What are some other possible steps we can take towards eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline?

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