Benjamin Chambers On the School-to-Prison Pipeline


How do you reduce the number of kids going into the juvenile justice system? Overhaul school disciplinary policies.

Here's a quick overview of research on the problem, a great video that puts a human face on the issue in Connecticut, and some things you can do.

Just yesterday, the Council of State Governments Justice Center released Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study of How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. The report is based on a groundbreaking study of nearly 1 million secondary school students in Texas. (Researchers were able to control for over 80 different variables because they had individual-level records from schools and juvenile court for every single youth in the study.)

Though it's methodologically very careful in its conclusions, it does show that:

  • nearly 60 percent of all students in the study were suspended or expelled between 7th and 12th grades;
  • African American students and children with "particular educational disabilities" were disproportionately affected -- especially for infractions where administrators had discretion over what sanctions to apply; and
  • students who were suspended or expelled were more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system the following year.

But there's grounds for hope, because researchers also found that:

  • suspension and expulsion rates varied widely beween schools, even among schools that were similar in terms of their students' racial compositon or economic status.

This suggests that schools can handle behavior problems differently, and with fewer negative outcomes on the youth.

This isn't to say that teachers and school administrators should never suspend or expel youth. However, in the past 30 years, the rate at which students are suspended has nearly doubled in the last 30 years, and removing students from the classroom doesn't actually make classrooms safer or help other students perform better. (My source is Suspended Education: Urban Middle Schools in Crisis, a report released last year by the Southern Poverty Law Center reviewing 30 years of data on the use of suspensions in middle schools. For an overview, see my post, School-to-Prison Pipeline: Middle School Suspensions Unfair and Ineffective.)

Many states are beginning to address the problem. For instance, check out this great video from Connecticut, "Education vs. Incarceration the Real Cost of Failing Our Kids." Follow the link to see the full, hour-long program. (Hat tip to the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance). The first segment is below:

What can you do in your community to address the overuse of school discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline?

1. Download Mapping and Analyzing the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track: An Action Kit for Understanding How Harsh School Discipline Policies and Practices Are Impacting Your CommunityAction Kit (Hat tip to the National Juvenile Justice Network.)

2. Work with your local juvenile court. Judge Steven Teske of Clayton County, Ga., and Judge Brian Huff of Jefferson County, Ala., have worked with local schools and other partners to dramatically reduce unnecessary referrals to juvenile court from schools. Follow the link to check out their PowerPoint, given at a Coalition for Juvenile Justice conference in 2010. Or, you can see their fantastic presentation on reducing school arrests at a forum hosted by the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Alliance. (Their presentation is 90 minutes long, but I assure you, they are worth watching.)

3. Implement restorative justice in your local schools, which recent research has shown to lower suspension and expulsion rates.

4. Tap the energy of the students themselves. Chicago public school students have organized to advocate for more reasonable discipline policies -- and they're being heard.

What have I missed? Any great strategies or ideas to share? Leave a comment!

The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.

Published by

Benjamin Chambers

Benjamin Chambers is a New Media Editor at Prichard Communications and a freelance writer. He edits the Reclaiming Futures web site and oversees its social media channels on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube.You can reach him at

One thought on “Benjamin Chambers On the School-to-Prison Pipeline”

Comments are closed.