The School to Prison Pipeline: Tackling Unjust Disciplinary Action in Schools


Written by: Kendra Shiloh

There is an alarming disproportionate tendency for students of color and students with disabilities to become incarcerated—known as the school-to-prison pipeline. The combination of zero-tolerance policies along with a strong police presence in public schools has facilitated the pipeline, normalizing the idea that even the slightest misstep is worthy of negative disciplinary action.

Police presence in public schools has increased dramatically over recent years, which may be attributed to the influx of school shootings. After the Parkland shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, every public school in Florida must have at least one armed guard, in compliance with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act. Although this piece of legislation is meant to be a solution, it has had disproportionately negative effects on minority students. The line between “teachable moments” and  punishable crimes has become blurred, and students from disadvantaged backgrounds are suffering at the hands of a system that does not work in their favor. According to a nationwide study by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, black children are three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white counterparts. 

In my personal experience, during my years of high school, the in-school suspension room was always occupied. Students were suspended for a variety of trivial reasons, ranging from talking excessively in class to dress code violations. This method of punishment meant students were lose vital class time, a possible cause for falling behind in class or ultimately failing. As the years passed, it appeared as though a specific group was being targeted in my school: black and latino students. As our grade moved onto our junior and senior years, a large percentage of this group dropped out. And while I cannot account for the path each student chose to take after high school, the ones whose paths I am aware of are less than favorable. Several fell down the path of substance abuse and the sale of illicit drugs, leading to arrests and for a select few, time in jail. This could have been avoided, had there been positive disciplinary action procedures in place. 

By taking students out of class, they are set further behind in their coursework. As students advance to junior and senior year, each class session is vital to their success in the world after graduation, especially if the student plans on attending college. Students can miss out on information that may be useful for standardized testing such as the SAT and ACT, impacting chances for higher education and a better future.

When a child faces extreme disciplinary action at school (such as one that involves interaction with the police), they are often labeled as a “bad kid” no matter how juvenile the incident was. In turn, this leads to the student being isolated from the class, which in turn can affect their emotional and mental health.  And due to the disparities in minority mental health care, these students may not receive the help that they need to cope with these feelings. If the student reaches a point where they lash out as a result of the isolation and internalized feelings, more often than not the student will receive yet another irrational disciplinary action. These feelings can be extremely discouraging for students, and a lack of resources can lead to a vicious cycle that further facilitates the pipeline.

It is not enough to just simply attempt to improve the school-to-prison pipeline when dealing with the future of our children. Eliminating the pipeline is a collective effort, and it starts with training teachers, especially in regards to positive disciplinary action, such as counseling. Students of color and students with disabilities enter school with a disadvantage from the very first day, due to a complex structural system that has never worked for them. They shouldn’t have to climb another barrier in order to receive a fair education.