School-to-Prison Pipeline Can Be Dismantled Using Alternative Discipline Strategies


The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the streamlining of at-risk students from schools to incarceration or related correctional-type facilities that results from punitive discipline practices and criminalizing misconduct in schools. Ultimately, the school-to-prison pipeline is the consequence of zero tolerance policies that originally mandated schools to penalize students for bringing weapons and drugs onto school grounds.

This penalty has grown to include nonviolent offenses that do not pose an immediate threat or harm. An alarming rate of students have been suspended and/or expelled for noncriminal acts such as disruptive behavior, violation of dress code, displays of affection or defiant behavior toward authority. In the 2011-12 academic year, 260,000 students were referred to law enforcement and 130,000 were expelled due to minor infractions. During that same time, more than 3 million students were suspended at least once. It has been discovered that a student is 23.5 percent more likely to drop out of school after receiving exclusionary discipline.

With individual schools having discretion to apply zero tolerance, a recognizable pattern has developed of minority students being disciplined more harshly, and at disproportionate rates, for minor subjective behaviors that do not cause physical or mental harm, such as verbal aggression, being disrespectful toward authorities or cellphone usage. Students of color have been found to be lower academic achievers, overall, and are detrimentally impacted by the low expectations set forth by school systems.

According to the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), African-American students represent 16 percent of the national student population, but 34 percent were expelled and 42 percent were suspended multiple times in 2014. Similar statistics are reflected for Hispanic and other racial minority youth nationwide.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth and students with disabilities are also found to be negatively impacted by this pipeline. LGBT youth are often victimized by their peers and blamed as the cause of problems by their teachers, and students with disabilities are often misdiagnosed and more likely to be held back a grade, which often leads to dropout. With such staggering statistics found in the available research, it is imperative that newer approaches to school discipline be considered and implemented to decrease the negative impacts such policies have on students and to decrease the streamlining of students into incarceration.

Alternative discipline strategies

While strict disciplinary actions such as expulsion are vital for punishing behavior that threatens the safety of others in school settings, it is not effective in correcting more minor problematic behaviors. Schools should instead use more positive-based strategies for addressing and modifying defiant behaviors.

Protecting the most vulnerable students from the dangers of incarceration and recidivism must be of primary concern. The school environment should be one of the main settings to help these students work on eliminating such undesirable behaviors, particularly for those who lack effective discipline at home.

Methods such as the On-Campus Intervention Program (OCIP) and Consistency Management and Cooperative Discipline (CMCD) program are alternative approaches to suspension and expulsion that have the ability to create a shift from a punitive learning environment to one that is warm and welcoming for all students.

OCIP provides counseling and support services to help students address and modify challenging behaviors by giving them opportunities to learn from their mistakes and focus on personal development. This program also emphasizes the development of essential life skills such as effective communication, goal setting, decision making and issues surrounding sexuality and healthy relationships. A Harvard report found that students enrolled in the OCIP demonstrated improved behavior and had a noticeable decrease in disciplinary referrals.

CMCD is another program that is an alternative approach to many of the harsh disciplinary actions associated with zero tolerance policies. Designed to improve the overall environment of inner-city schools, it has the primary goal of having teachers and students collaborate to set classroom rules. Such a method creates a fundamental shift in the ways students are disciplined and expected to behave and allows for a more shared power dynamic. This program also focuses on rewarding positive behavior, which is imperative for improving school climate, especially for schools that have poor attendance and poor academic performance. Such programs as these have made drastic changes within schools and helped to dismantle the pipeline.  

Cultural competency training

As previously mentioned, there has been an alarming rate of students of color being suspended and expelled from schools due to minor infractions over the last decade. Several studies have negated the probable cause that the basis of race alone is the reason behind minority students engaging in negative behaviors.

In fact, there is no evidence that African-American students engage in more problematic behaviors than their Caucasian counterparts, yet they are expelled or receive more serious forms of punishment at higher rates. The racial disparity of the school-to-prison pipeline reveals a deeper-seated issue, systematic racism within American schools. While minority students and students from the majority may display the same behaviors, there’s an identifiable correlation with stronger negative perceptions and negative feedback for minority students.  

America’s historic racial narrative has transformed into implicit bias, which is one of the main causes of the pipeline and helps to explain the disproportionate rate of minorities being disciplined for subjective behavior. Implicit bias training and cultural diversity training are potential solutions to resolve consequences from actions motivated by implicit bias. Implicit bias training allows professionals to self-report their innate decisions and teaches how these decisions impact the lives of youth.

Cultural diversity training allows professionals to become more aware of others’ culture, and prompts the exploration of how and why certain stereotypical and discriminatory beliefs exist. Being made aware of the potential stereotypes and biases that exist in the subconscious minds of professionals working with students can have a significant impact on the ways in which school personnel interact with students and can also help make the shift from making biased decisions to choices that are objective and more concrete.

It is up to schools and associated administrators to eliminate the cultural biases and conflicts prevalent in all school systems and work against the academic progress and successful development of all students, with at-risk students from minority groups in particular. Learning from such shifts has the potential to transform how students are disciplined into ways that better facilitate the necessary maturation to become successful adults and members of society.

Policy considerations

Considering the impact policies such as zero tolerance have had on the school-to-prison pipeline, it is necessary to advocate for new policies that reconsider how to discipline problematic students in more effective and rehabilitative ways. The school environment is where students learn and grow, and it only makes sense that in this environment they are also exposed to and experience better approaches to development that occur outside of textbooks and classroom lectures. Students must learn how to act appropriately and how to respond to external stressors that can often provoke undesirable behaviors.

With evidence from research that proves zero tolerance and related policies that incorporate mandatory punishment for minor offenses do not work and, in fact, exacerbate misbehavior, newer approaches must be considered. Not only have studies found such policies to increase problematic behaviors, they also point to unsafe school climates and a lack of improvement in terms of students’ academic performance. School policies need to be revised to only use suspension and expulsions for the highest level of violent offenses and alternative effective methods for minor nonviolent offenses.

Some states have been diligently revising their code of conduct and rules. For example, Oregon replaced its zero tolerance policy with rules that only allow expulsion for conduct that threatens the safety and well-being of others within the school environment. Other schools across the nation have cleared up grey areas concerning disciplinary action and limited including law enforcement during disciplinary decision-making practices. While research is ongoing and necessary to track results from such changes, more needs to be done to increase the rate at which changes are being made to strengthen America’s youth and schools.  

Schools have been a prominent cornerstone for youth’s overall development and the learning environment for them to become contributing members of society. However, far too many students have been robbed of their right to be comprehensively educated due to the school-to-prison pipeline. We dim the light for students and the nation's future when we continue to push problem students out of schools and funnel them into the juvenile/criminal justice system, thereby feeding the belly of mass incarceration.

School personnel and administrators, lawmakers, social workers and counselors must make dismantling this pipeline a top priority and consider this small sample of strategies for improving the lives of our most vulnerable students and our school climates. The utilization of such solutions needs to be incorporated into the future and advancement of all schools to strengthen our school systems and the educational experience of all students.

Kendra Cheek is a social work senior at Middle Tennessee State University with a passion for research and serving youth in marginalized populations. She’s an emerging leader, currently serving as the secretary for Phi Alpha National Honor Society in Social Work and vice president of the National Association of Black Social Workers.

Justin Bucchio is an assistant professor of social work at Middle Tennessee State University, with expertise in child welfare and LGBT foster youth. Justin’s experience with social work and the child welfare system stems from his early years in foster care, which ignited his passion for serving youth in out-of-home care.

7 thoughts on “School-to-Prison Pipeline Can Be Dismantled Using Alternative Discipline Strategies”

  1. I need some ideas for starting local support groups for our communities youth. Lots of at risk high schoolers that are loosing hope and getting lost in “the wrong crowd” and illegal activity/gang/violence and other unsafe, less desirable notions/choices teens find solitude in, as a rule…which leads to NO life. just of trouble/trauma. We are creating our own criminals! and “they” are only a direct result of US and the life our parents and grandparents had to live. “hard knock centuries of WAR ON PEOPLE. We have been fighting each other. and We need to start investing in the success of our “next generation”. Not DISableing them, but: GIVING THEM THE ABILITY! WE NEED TO START educatING thoroughly on bullying, teen suicide, addictions: sexual, alcohol, drugs and food, ETC. Self worth and personal identity through Geneology and applying Histories lessons to current life. Back to Mother Nature. Humanitarian ways. Tools for conflict resolution, diversity, anger management, family issues, and enough respect for our selves to treat each other with KINDNESS!! CREATE POSITIVE ENERGY NATURALLLY. STOP FIGHTING TO SEPERATE AND DIVIDE FAMILIES, AND START FIGHTING TO KEEP THEM TOGETHER. WE GOTTA STOP FIGTING AND KILLING EACH OTHER. WE DO BETTER FOR PIT BULLS AND ROOSTERS.

  2. Here in UK exclusions (suspensions) have to be notified to the Local Education Authority. If a student is excluded the school has to make a contribution towards the cost of alternative education provision, which has to be put in place in most cases within six days. If the student has special needs there are additional legal protections, which can include an appeal to the Special Education Needs Tribunal, which has the legal status of a court of record. (So if a student’s behaviour may be linked with a disability such as ADHD, autistic spectrum etc. the school has to show that they have tried all reasonable accommodations before excluding him. Sending a student with a disability home ‘to cool off’ is illegal.) In the London borough where I recently worked, there were no primary school students (K-5) expelled one year, and the most in any year was three or four across some eighty schools. (A few students were moved to special schools for students with behavioural needs as a result of a formal health and social care assessment and after parental consultation and agreement.) The number of seconary school exclusions was fairly small – (suspensions and expulsions) is monitored by Ofsted, the national school inspection agency, and any school with a large number of exclusions can expect a national inspection. In addition, suspensions of more than five days in any term result in a right of appeal to a committee of the Governing Body, at whih the Head Teacher has to justify the exclusion as being fair, necessary and proportionate. The standard of proof is the civil law doctrine of ” balance of probabilities ” i.e. the school does not have to prove that John Doe did what he is accused of to the criminal standard of proof, but there does have to be a fair investigation and due process. It would probably be illegal under UK law to have a “zero tolerance” policy, as that would fetter the Head Teacher’s discretion and the duty of proportionality. For example, I read of a US case where a Boy Scout with an unblemished school record used his school bag for a campout, and accidentally left his pocket knife in the bag – he was expelled under a zero tolerance rule. I doubt any school Governing Body in UK would consider this proportionate. Doesn’t the US share many of the doctrines derived from Common Law? If so, how can “zero tolerance” be lawful? Can a School Board or whoever ignore proportionality? (Here in England any public body, including a Head Teacher and Governing Body, have to follow “natural justice ” and “due process” in any school disciplinary procedures, or risk a High Court writ.)
    England and Wales have a student population of about 7.91 million. Permanent exclusions for secondary and special schools in the year 2015-16 were 6685 or about 8 per 10K students, and for primary it was 1125 or 2 per 10K students. 2.1% of students 11+ and 0.5% of students <11 received one or more days' exclusion. There was a noticeable ethnic variation, with 1.65% of all white students and 3.73% of all black (Caribbean / African) students receiving one or more exclusions of one day or more. However, of the 6585 students who were expelled, 5055 were white. The expulsion rate was 10 per 10K white students and 14 per 10K black (African, Caribbean or Afro-Caribbean).
    If one accepts that there are approx 50.4m school students in USA and 3m were exclued at least once, that is a rate of about 1512 per 10K students, compared with 211 per 10K students in UK. The figures in the above article indicate that expulsions in US are about 258 per 10K students in USA compared with about 8 per 10K students in UK … How is that possible? [Ref:

  3. Building Assets, Reducing Risks (BARR) is a comprehensive SEL secondary school improvement model that has proven effectiveness in building relationships. Teachers and students get to know each other well and students develop relationships with their peers through classroom SEL lessons. BARR has been thoroughly researched and is effective in urban, rural and suburban schools. Because of its effectiveness in high schools, many districts are now implementing BARR in middle schools to ease transitions and ensure that no student gets lost. Ongoing focus on data (metrics that each district holds important) is reviewed in Block Team meetings.

    1. What a great program & it speaks volumes to know there are school districts that are paying attention to this issue and finding ways to tackle the problem.

  4. I enjoyed your article and I can agree based on my lived experiences as an educator in a urban comprehensive high school. We are currently using Restorative Practices, PBIS, and have even began implementing our own program for teaching our most chronic students pro-social skills, anger management, values, and mindfulness. We believe this is the missing link to the work we have been doing the past two years, now going on three to truly dismantle the pipeline and to disrupt cultural biases.

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