School Survival

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The School to Prison Pipeline: Drop - outs or "Push - Outs"?

Last week the New York Times reported the results of a disturbing but unsurprising new study from Northeastern University,

On any given day, about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates, according to a new study of the effects of dropping out of school in an America where demand for low-skill workers is plunging.

The picture is even bleaker for African-Americans, with nearly one in four young black male dropouts incarcerated or otherwise institutionalized on an average day, the study said. That compares with about one in 14 young, male, white, Asian or Hispanic dropouts.

What the NY Times article fails to address is this critical and foundational question - are these young men drop-outs or are they pushed out? Have school polcies written a script that tracks them onto the path of the school to prison pipeline??

While schools have long been characterized by both formal and informal tracks that route students into various areas of the curriculum, tracking students out of school and into jail is a new phenomenon. Current policies have increased the risk of students being suspended, expelled, and/or arrested at school. Youth of color in particular are at increased risk for being "pushed out" of schools – pushed out into the streets, into the juvenile justice system, and/or into adult prisons and jails. This pattern has become so pronounced that scholars, child advocates, and community activists now refer to it as "the school to prison pipeline", the "schoolhouse to jailhouse track", or as younger and younger students are targeted,"cradle to prison track".


The school to prison pipeline does not exist in a vacuum. It is deeply connected to a socio-political climate that is increasingly fearful and punitive. While media and the rise of the prison industrial complex create the context, shifts in educational policy provide the immediate impetus for the flow of children from school to legal systems. The school to prison pipeline is facilitated by several trends in education that most negatively impact students of color. These include growing poverty rates and declining school funding, re-segregation of schools by race and class, under-representation of students of color in advanced placement courses and over-presentation in special education tracks, No Child Left Behind , high stakes testing, and rising drop-out/push -out rates.

The primary factor, however, is increased reliance on zero tolerance policies, which play an immediate and integral role in feeding the school to prison pipeline. While there is no official definition of the term zero tolerance, generally the term means that a harsh predefined mandatory consequence is applied to a violation of school rules without regard to the ―seriousness of the behavior, mitigating circumstances, or the situational context

The Gun-free Schools Act of 1994 (GFSA) provided the initial impetus for zero tolerance policies. The GFSA mandates that all schools that receive federal funding must 1) have policies to expel for a calendar year any student who brings a firearm to school or to school zone, and 2) report that student to local law enforcement, thereby blurring any distinction between disciplinary infractions at school and the law. Subsequent amendments to The GFSA and changes in many state laws and local school district regulations broadened the GFSA focus on firearms to apply to many other kinds of weapons.

Most schools have adopted zero-tolerance policies for a variety of behavioral issues- largely directed towards weapons, alcohol/drugs, threatening behavior, and fighting on school premises, and as the name implies, indicate zero-tolerance for any infractions. In addition, a growing number of school districts also have an increased security presence at school. It has become routine for districts to assign staff/volunteers to monitor halls and bathrooms, equip staff with communication devices, use metal detectors and cameras, and have uniformed security guards or police present. It is less common, but also possible now for some schools to employ canine units, Tasers, and SWAT team raids for drug and weapons searches.

Zero tolerance policies generally involve harsh disciplinary consequences such as long-term and/or permanent suspension or expulsion for violations, and often arrest and referral to juvenile or adult court. While the original intent of The GFSA was to require these punishments for serious violations involving weapons, they have frequently been applied to minor or non-violent violations of rules such as tardiness and disorderly conduct. Zero-tolerance policies do not distinguish between serious and non-serious offenses, nor do they adequately separate intentional troublemakers from those with behavioral disorders. They cast a very wide net; students have been suspended and or expelled for nail clippers, Advil and mouthwash. In an excerpt from his new book, Youth is a Suspect Society,Henry Giroux highlights some cases.

the recent high-profile case of Zachary Christie, a 6-year old first grader who received a 45-day suspension because he brought to school his favorite Cub Scott camping utensil, which can serve as a knife, fork and spoon. Rather than be treated as a young boy who made a simple mistake, he was treated by the school as a suspect who deserved to be punished.

One typical example includes the case of an 8-year-old boy in the first grade at a Miami elementary school who took a table knife to his school, using it to rob a classmate of $1 in lunch money. School officials claimed he was facing "possible expulsion and charges of armed robbery."

In another instance that took place in December 2004, "Porsche, a fourth-grade student at a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, elementary school, was yanked out of class, handcuffed, taken to the police station and held for eight hours for bringing a pair of eight-inch scissors to school. She had been using the scissors to work on a school project at home. School district officials acknowledged that the girl was not using the scissors as a weapon or threatening anyone with them, but scissors qualified as a potential weapon under state law."

in February 2003, a 7-year-old boy was cuffed, shackled and forced to lie face down for more than an hour while being restrained by a security officer at Parker Community Academy on the Southwest Side. Neither the principal nor the assistant principal came to the aid of the first grader, who was so traumatized by the event he was not able to return to school.


Zero tolerance policies have proliferated without evidence that they actually improve school safety and security. In theory, zero-tolerance policies are intended to have a deterrent effect for intentionally troublesome students, i.e. the mere presence of the policies is intended to thwart disruptive behavior. But, as with harsh penalties for juvenile and criminal justice, zero tolerance was adopted and expanded in lieu of data supporting either effectiveness or need. They do increase rates of expulsion, elevate drop-out rates, and deny due process and equal protection for students. There is also evidence that they contribute to the school to prison pipleine. According to the Advancement Project

"Zero tolerance has engendered a number of problems: denial of education through increased suspension and expulsion rates, referrals to inadequate alternative schools, lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and racial profiling of students...... Once many of these youths are in "the system," they never get back on the academic track. Sometimes, schools refuse to readmit them; and even if these students do return to school, they are often labeled and targeted for close monitoring by school staff and police. Consequently, many become demoralized, drop out, and fall deeper and deeper into the juvenile or criminal justice systems. Those who do not drop out may find that their discipline and juvenile or criminal records haunt them when they apply to college or for a scholarship or government grant, or try to enlist in the military or find employment. In some places, a criminal record may prevent them or their families from residing in publicly subsidized housing. In this era of zero tolerance, the consequences of child or adolescent behaviors may long outlive students’ teenage years."

And of course these policies are enforced in ways that magnify racial disaprities in both school discipline and in the juvneile justice system. Students of color, especially African Americans, are much more likely than their white counter-parts to be suspended or expelled from school for disciplinary reasons. This trend does not appear to be correlated with actual racial/ethnic differences in disruptive classroom behaviors.

A recent study by the Chicago Tribune revealed that nationally, black students are being suspended in numbers greater than would be expected from their proportion of the student population. Rates of suspension and expulsion for Latino/as are somewhat higher than expected but black students bear the brunt of these policies. In 21 states that disproportionality is so pronounced that the percentage of black suspensions is more than double their percentage of the student body. In some states, black students are expelled at 6 times the rate of whites, with certain district showing rates that are more than 10 times. On average across the nation, black students are suspended and expelled at nearly three times the rate of white students. While African American students make up 17% of all school age youth, they account for 37% of suspensions and 35% of all expulsions.

The over-representation of black males in both drop-out rates and incacreatiion then is consistent with these patterns and largely attributable to them. According to the Advancement Project -

Despite no real differences in participation in crime, African Americans, while representing 17% of the youth population, account for 45% of all juvenile arrests. Black youth are 2 times more likely than white youth to be arrested, to be referred to juvenile court, to be formally processed and adjudicated as delinquent or referred to the adult criminal justice system, and they are 3 times more likely than white youth to be sentenced to out-of –home residential placement. Nationally, 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime.... Because higher rates of suspensions and expulsions are likely to lead to higher rates of juvenile incarceration, it is not surprising that black and Latino youths are disproportionately represented among young people held in juvenile prisons

The costs are enormous - in lost lives, decimated communities and yes in tax dollars. Again from the NY Times

Previous studies have come up with estimates of the same order of magnitude on the social cost of low graduation rates. A 2007 study by Teachers College, Princeton and City University of New York researchers, for instance, estimated that society could save $209,000 in prison and other costs for every potential dropout who could be helped to complete high school.


It is time to end the practice of funneling children - especially black and brown children - out of schools and into prisons and jails. It is racist, classist, costly and counter-productive. It is systemic discrimination of the most insidious sort. In Schools and the Pedagogy of Punishment, Giroux leaves us with a question and a call to action.

How much longer can a nation ignore those youth who lack the resources and opportunities that were available, in a partial and incomplete way, to previous generations? And what does it mean when a nation becomes frozen ethically and imaginatively in providing its youth with a future of hope and opportunity? Under such circumstances, it is time for parents, young people, educators, writers, labor unions and social movements to take a stand and to remind themselves that not only do young people deserve more, but so does an aspiring democracy that has any sense of justice, vision, and hope for the future

Please heed it.


Where to next? Pick one!

Posted in: Commentary on October 22, 2009 @ 9:27 PM

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