How Inequalities in Schools are Fueling the School to Prison Pipeline

School to Prison Pipeline

Though many schools have adopted Positive Behavior Incentives and Supports (PBIS) as a way to build positive school culture, educators still have a lot of work to do. We often talk about the disparities for people of color compared to white people in systems like criminal justice and housing, however educators are producing many of the same inequities that we see in society through school and district discipline policies and practices. 

According to the United States Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, students who have been suspended are more likely to be retained and drop out of school entirely. Did you know that Black students are 3.7 times more likely to be suspended from school than White students in the United States? And Black children are 3 to 4 times more likely to be expelled from school than their white peers. 

These and other disparate outcomes for children of color provide a compelling reason for schools to not only focus on building positive cultures, but take it a step farther, adopting Anti-Racism as a philosophy and incorporating anti-racist policies and practices. 

→ Read our whitepaper on How to Achieve Equity in Education

How did we get here?

The term “School to Prison Pipeline” refers to a national trend in which school policies directly and indirectly push students out of school and into the criminal justice system. The adoption of “zero tolerance” policies across our nation in the 1990’s as a response to concerns about violence in schools created mandates that required punishment for students who committed certain types of infractions. Those policies were widely criticized because language, such as “weapon” or “disrespect,” can be interpreted differently depending on who was issuing the discipline.

In addition to zero tolerance policies, school districts began dealing more harshly with lower level infractions. Police were introduced into school discipline, many times in situations which would have previously been handled by a school administrator, social worker, or counselor. 

Unfortunately, in the United States and around the world, there is a toxic association between Black and bad. This plays out in how we discipline children in schools, which in many cases leads to suspensions, expulsions, and entry into the criminal justice system at a young age. 

Why do we need to change our philosophies, policies and practices?

There is a lack of cultural competency in the teaching workforce in the U.S. As shown in the chart below, the National Center for Education Statistics demonstrates that as of the 2017-2018 school year, 79% of the teachers in public elementary schools and secondary schools were classified as white. In contrast, 49% of the school aged population is non-white (Black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander, American Indian, or two or more races. 

Teachers educating children of a different race is not the problem, as there are benefits to multicultural exposure for all. However, when teachers who have been racially isolated and have never commingled with a diverse population begin to interact with students of color, biases and prejudices emerge that must be examined and faced. 

Unfortunately, in many school districts, the necessary anti-bias and equity work is not prioritized with the teachers and leaders who interact with children and families everyday. According to Jennifer L. Eberhardt, Phd., one of the world’s leading experts and author of the book Biased: Discovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think and Do, “People hold biases based on all sorts of characteristics – skin color, age, weight, ethnic origin, accent, disability, height, gender.” This must be addressed if teachers are not familiar with the culture of the students that they teach.

What Do We Do?

We must begin by admitting that there is a problem. The national, regional and local disaggregated data does not lie. Children of color are more harshly disciplined than their white peers. 

Next, we must begin to examine our classroom, school and district policies and practices that may be contributing these inequities. We must also acknowledge the internal biases and stereotypes that we all hold, and look at how we may be contributing to these disproportionate outcomes. Ibram Kendi, author of How to Be an Anti Racist, says that to be racist is to constantly deny the inequities that exist in society, but to be anti-racist is to admit that inequities exist, confess that there were times that we supported racist policies and most importantly, strive to do better. We need this in education now more than ever.

This is part two in a three part series about anti-racism in schools. Be on the lookout for part three of this series which focuses on anti-racism in the classroom.