School Suspensions Contribute to the Prison Pipeline

School Suspensions Contribute to the Prison Pipeline

1           Introduction

In 2012, approximately 6.6 million students in public institutions received either in-school or out-of-school suspensions (Raufu, 2017). For a student who regularly faces the threat of harsh punishment, suspensions can serve as a life-altering experience. Moreover, the impacts last longer and are graver if one is an African American or Hispanic student. According to Clay (2018), these students are twice as likely to face suspension than their fellow learners. The instructors and administrators in these schools have adopted a defeatist attitude towards learners from these two races. As a result, they resort to harsh punitive measures for minor infractions, for example, disrespect or a uniform violation. Even more alarming is the fact that 250 learners in pre-school institutions were suspended or expelled; therefore, even from a young age of 3 years, children are still funneled towards the school-to-prison pipeline (Clay, 2018). This culture contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline because students who have been suspended for two or more times are easily susceptible to illegal behavior when they are sent home. Many educators cite a lack of resources for their rash decisions. Nevertheless, the criminalization and stigma associated with suspensions increase cases of misbehavior among students which further drives them to engage in illegal activities outside of school. As a result, many of them end up in prison.

2           Literature Review

2.1         Suspensions as an Unfair and Insensitive System

Matos (2017) argues that although the number of suspensions dropped drastically between 2014 and 2016, there are still unrecorded suspensions taking place in learning institutions. For example, many school heads issue a daily memo to the staff with a list of students who are not allowed into the school compound since they misbehaved on a previous occasion. However, only a few of these instances are recorded as suspensions. Although a student may have been banned from attending classes, they are still marked as present in the school attendance sheet. Alternatively, the learner may be recorded as excused since they are attending an out-of-school activity or marked as absent without cause. These practices are disappointing and disturbing as they undermine the disciplinary actions taken to discourage students from illegal acts. However, even under pretense, suspensions have the same effects on the students. They alienate the students from their instructors and may dishearten some from participating actively in school for fear of the repercussions (Matos, 2017). These undocumented suspensions give schools the freedom to push their learners out of school without regard to the federal law protecting students. Furthermore, underreporting these disciplinary cases presents inaccurate statistics which further affects the decision-making process involved in determining the effectiveness of the zero-tolerance practice.

According to Raufu (2017), the majority of the students who receive multiple suspensions in schools share similar characteristics. Apart from the fact that many of them are minority students, they also tend to be more vulnerable as they come from dysfunctional families or poor socioeconomic backgrounds; thus, jeopardizing their chances of completing high school or succeeding in their academics. Forty percent of these students are often African American while 37 percent are Native American children (Raufu, 2017). Students from families of lower socioeconomic status face suspension more compared to those who come from middle or upper-class families. Additionally, learners who have faced or have been exposed to maltreatment are often exposed to law enforcement authorities in disciplinary cases that involve them. Some of the victims may also develop learning disabilities and other psychological conditions that prevent them from learning. The existing disparities mean that many of them will be referred to law enforcement authorities for disciplinary action. The children, thus, often feel like irritants who should be punished or condemned at every opportunity. This insensitive and brunt system further contributes to the adverse conditions that propel these learners to engage in crime.

2.2         Bias in School Disciplinary Practices

The current political climate makes the subject of racial prejudice even more sensitive. The disparities between the number of suspensions issued to students of color and those issued to white learners raise the question of fairness in learning institutions. According to Clay (2018), 48 percent of African American students enrolled in public schools received more than one suspension in 2015 for skipping class or chewing gum during a lecture. These increased number of suspensions harm the students as many of them feel as if their instructors have given up on them. This feeling of alienation may stem from the inadequate training that the teachers receive before they begin their practice. Many of them do not realize the alternatives for correcting misbehavior. Hence, once they are faced with an issue, they quickly give up on the situation and send the perpetrator home (Clay, 2018). Their fear results from the stereotype of violence associated with Hispanic and African American young adults. Therefore, the overall ecosystem becomes hostile to these learners making it more difficult for those charged with disciplining them. This culture leads to implicit bias in schools due to negative and automatic assumptions made about the learners.

The implementation of school disciplinary practices has had a disproportionate effect on students of color. In this destructive cycle, race matters since students of color are often more likely to be referred to higher levels of authority for non-violent misconduct and firmer action taken against them. In most public schools, an African American student is suspended every four seconds (Tyner, 2017). Additionally, students with disabilities are also affected by the bias in learning institutions. Seventy percent of African American or Hispanic learners are referred to law enforcement authorities for disciplinary action and 1 in every 4 of these students has a learning disability (Tyler, 2017). Consequently, there is a need for civil rights analysis due to these significant differences in disciplinary action taken against students. Children of color may suffer harsher measures for the same conduct exhibited by white children although their infractions often revolve around disrespect which is non-disruptive behavior. Therefore, these disparities cannot be explained by more severe misconduct but rather by more frequent and rash decisions made against learners of color. Consequently, this proves that the zero-tolerance policies implemented against these students can be far-reaching which then increases the probability of their incarceration in the future.

2.3         Factors Contributing to Increase in School Suspensions

The limited constitutional protection offered to students is a contributing factor to the rise in the rates of suspensions in each school. According to Nance (2016), some measures have been taken to alleviate this situation including a pronouncement by the Supreme Court that “students do not shed their constitutional rights…at the schoolhouse gate” (936). Nonetheless, learners’ rights concerning issues like detainment, questioning, and fairness during investigations are often violated – this unfairness results from efforts of the courts to promote discipline and safety in schools. The courts have weakened the Fourth Amendment rights of students in schools to support the efforts by officials to reduce the number of infractions. Administrators can search a student’s locker or belongings without having to provide proof that the learner has committed an infraction. As a result, school officials now rely on invasive and intense surveillance techniques to monitor their students. The learners are also unprotected against searches by police officers without warning within school grounds. The evidence collected is further used as evidence against the student in a disciplinary case. But, in other circumstances, the methods used to obtain the evidence would render it inadmissible. Thus, these cases are rarely fair or deliberative and often seem rigged to produce favorable results for the school which is punishing the wrongdoer for setting an example to the other learners.

Moreover, accountability laws which are enforced through testing laws also contribute to the school-prison pipeline (Nance, 2016). These laws stipulate that schools should test their learners frequently and hold grave consequences for those institutions that do not adhere to these regulations. As a result, some institutions may opt to push students who do not perform well out of their institutions by implementing harsh disciplinary measures. Some of them may refer learners who do not score well in their tests to the juvenile system to avoid having their poor results count against the school. Many of them, who do so, believe that underachievement in school is often connected to indiscipline. Therefore, they may handle disciplinary issues involving underachievers with the intent of punishing them heavily to discourage their underperformance (Nance, 2016). Alternatively, they may opt to chase them away for trivial matters although many of these learners may act out because they are frustrated or embarrassed by their performance. Many of them after realizing that they might fail, have fewer incentives to follow school regulations or respect those in authority. The mentality that these learners cannot be trained or will end up in jail means that school officials will automatically aim to punish them instead of correcting the students’ behavior.

2.4         Effect of Zero-Tolerance Practices

Under zero-tolerance practices, learners are punished without much thought which harms the students. These practices result from several incorrect assumptions. Many administrators believe that strict, swift, and uniform approaches taken against misbehaving students serve to discourage wrong actions among their fellow learners. In this case, these measures will improve conduct among the students and reduce the number of disciplinary cases reported to the educators. But, this assumption is incorrect because this philosophy serves as the defining characteristic of effective punishment (Maxime, 2018). Therefore, there tends to be a consistent increase in the number of disruptions instead of the intended decrease. The students who are suspended often resume school with the notion of testing the limits of the administrators’ punishments. Consequently, these students face suspension once more and in dire cases, they are expelled. Maxime (2018) argues that this blind-justice approach adopted by teachers is aimed at making the treatment of all students fair, and thus reduce the number of bias instances. But, blind justice is not fully implemented because some of these educators are influenced by a student’s track record and performance. As a result, their decision reflects their attitude towards the learner which further necessitates the need for cultural training for instructors.

The implementation of zero-tolerance policies in schools has significantly increased the number of suspensions. For example, after these policies were implemented in institutions in Chicago, the rate of suspensions increased by 51 percent in four years (Cole, 2019). But, once a student is suspended, they may not complete high school and are more than twice as likely to get arrested during their forced leave. Also, after they leave school, it is more probable that they will be thrown into the juvenile system. Cole (2019) argues that school punishment before the age of 15 is more likely to push a teenage male into a life of crime and later prison. In most suspension cases, police officers are often involved. As a result, many of the learners begin having contact with law enforcement while still young. Although their intention may be to protect the students, the way they handle the matter may escalate the situation. Minor and non-violent infractions may quickly become criminal incidences that negatively impact the students. Law enforcement presence in the school may also lead them to know of more crimes and make more arrests involving students who are younger than 15. Many of their victims are less likely to complete their education which further increases their likelihood of imprisonment.

2.5         Suspensions Affect Students’ Development

Additionally, labeling serves to criminalize learners which means they tend to behave in a manner that reflects how the authority figures label them (Cole, 2019). In schools, being labeled and treated as a lousy learner means the student internalizes this attitude and begins to act in a way that reflects these accusations. For example, after a suspension, many of the student’s teachers are more likely to increase the frequency of surveillance on them and continuously warn them against repeat behavior. These attempts to control wrong actions may ultimately foster the very illegal activities these authority figures are fighting to prevent. Their efforts often prove futile because such an approach fails to recognize the struggles of the deviant and often strips them of any dignity. Therefore, they tend to rebel against the disrespect and feelings of alienation created by such an environment. As a result, these institutions end up criminalizing the youth while trying to reform them. Moreover, school acts as a formative environment for learners to receive guidance and learn about human interaction. Thus, taking them away from these surroundings to punish them removes them from the structure the schools provide. Therefore, such acts hurt their development as it may thrust them into an unsupervised and potentially dangerous home environment.

Once removed from school, these students tend to spend their time with others facing the same disciplinary actions or those already engaged in crime. Therefore, they are not socialized by their peers and instructors, but rather by unfocused and crime-oriented adults. These factors, thus, create an environment that fosters the development of a criminal mindset. Furthermore, suspensions often result when school administrators and law enforcement officers treat non-violent offenses as criminal acts. Their rash decisions undermine their authority because the punishment often does not fit the crime. Therefore, the learners view those in power in their institutions as unfair, untrustworthy, or immoral. Consequently, they tend to behave oppositely and fail to acknowledge the authority of their educators, hence, fostering conflict between the two parties. This conflict further leads to more suspensions which ultimately damages the relationship between learners and their instructors. Once they have been excluded from their learning institutions, students are often called criminal or dangerous by their neighbors, parents, or friends (Cole, 2019). This further labeling leads to the students experiencing stress, anger, and depression since they feel unfairly judged. They can then have difficulty concentrating once they resume learning or have no desire at all to return to school. These social forces then discourage the students and may push them into a life of crime and later into the criminal reform system.

3           Recommendations

Action must be taken by the stakeholders for systemic change to dismantle the school-prison pipeline (Tyner, 2017). First, school officials need to work to improve the climate in their respective institutions by focusing on prevention rather than punishment. Additionally, educators need to come up with appropriate and consistent measures to address infractions by students. The techniques adopted should reflect the extent of disruption caused and should be aimed at increasing engagement and boosting student achievement. Lastly, administrators should ensure fairness and equity in disciplinary matters. According to Elias (2013), teachers need to be trained in using positive behavior to engage at-risk learners who will then improve the rapport between the two parties. Additionally, appropriate limits should be set concerning the involvement of law enforcement in school matters. An alternative involves creating agreements with departments of the justice system to limit school arrests or the use of excessive force with the children (Elisa, 2013). All these efforts will improve the students’ behavior and guarantee less need for suspensions in institutions.

Consequently, it is vital that institutions reconsider the techniques they use to discipline their students. School officials need to aim at holistically developing their learners to become contributing members of their community through the adoption of a restorative model (Maxime, 2018). This model includes measures aimed at conflict resolution. In this case, all parties are allowed to express their point of view. The mediator then listens to the parties and develops a plan of action to fix the harm caused. The restorative model shies away from harsh punishments. Instead, this approach embraces conversation which improves the culture of the institution as well as reduces the number of disciplinary cases. Restorative practices revolve around the character and community development which represent non-severe responses to minor infractions committed by learners who struggle both academically and behaviorally. However, this model emphasizes direct address, physical repair of any damaged property, and social justice acts by the wrongdoers (Maxime, 2018). Students who violate the school code serve in various capacities in the community surrounding their institution. The guardians of these children are also actively involved in the disciplinary process as they significantly influence the way learners act.

4           Conclusion

In conclusion, more suspensions in schools directly correspond to more arrests and incarcerations among young individuals. However, this number is disproportional and favors white learners who experience less harsh action as compared to students of color. Also, many of these children come from low-income families where they are often neglected or abused. But, the zero-tolerance policies adopted by many institutions combined with the stereotypes associated with minority students imply that they often face suspension even for minor infractions. They are then labeled as dangerous, and the stigma further discourages them from obeying all rules or respecting authority figures. Criminals may also befriend some of them during their forced leave which then encourages them to pursue crime as well. Therefore, institutions should adopt a restorative model to correct deviant behavior to alter this vicious cycle.



5           References

Clay, G. (2018, May 17). Panel Dissects Role of Suspensions in School-To-Prison Pipeline. Retrieved from

Cole, N. L. (2019, January 25). What You Need to Know About the School to Prison Pipeline. Retrieved from

Elias, M. (2013). The School-to-Prison Pipeline. Retrieved from

Matos, A. (2017, July 18). ACLU, advocacy groups, demand school officials investigate suspension practices. Retrieved from

Maxime, F. (2018, January 18). Zero-Tolerance Policies and the School to Prison Pipeline. Retrieved from

Nance, J. P. (2016). Students, police, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Wash. UL Rev.93, 919-986.

Raufu, A. (2017). School-to-Prison Pipeline: Impact of School Discipline on African American Students. Journal of Education and Social Science7(1), 47-53.

Tyner, A. R., Dr. (2017, August 15). The Emergence of the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Retrieved from