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Swimming Through The School To Prison Pipeline

Updated: Nov 12



Albert Einstein once said, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” It’s easy for us to recognize in this metaphor that fish are (obviously) not meant to climb trees because said fish is not placed in an environment that ensures its success. Yet, this awareness is more difficult to channel when it comes to the United States’ public education system. Across school districts in the United States, the school-to-prison pipeline is depriving minority students and students with disabilities of an equitable education.


What is the School-to-Prison pipeline?


The school-to-prison pipeline is a phenomenon that occurs when minority students and students with disabilities are disproportionately funneled out of classrooms and into jails through suspension. While it may seem extreme to jump from expulsion, or even suspension, to jail time, consider the evidence that suggests the likelihood of a child dropping out of high school increases if they have a history of suspension prior. According to a peer-reviewed article published by the American Psychology Association, it was found that prior suspension is the greatest predictor of high school dropouts even when compared to other factors like socioeconomic status, number of school changes, having sex before the age of 15, and not living both with biological parents. Along that same vein, high school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be incarcerated than their counterparts. Suspensions are the gateway to a lifetime of crime and/or unemployment.


According to a nationwide study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended or expelled. According to a report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, 1 in 4 black students with disabilities are suspended at least once vs. 1 in 11 white students with disabilities.


How is something like the School-to-Prison Pipeline possible?


Students who are most severely impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline tend to live in low socioeconomic areas that fail to provide the resources that would set them up for success. Their schools lack experienced teachers, guidance counselors, advanced classes, early intervention programs, extracurricular programs, and/or safe facilities. Furthermore, schools in poorer communities tend to serve families with parents that do not possess a college degree, serve fewer families with the support of both parents, and have less parent volunteers. As a result, these schools have a harder time attracting quality teachers. All of these factors work to disadvantage the school, and without sufficient resources, these schools and students become at risk for being labeled “failing” or “dangerous.” Students often internalize these labels to the point that their actions reflect these projected labels—call it a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Furthermore, the lack of resources puts schools in a position where they feel suspension is their only option. There is a cost to educate teachers on appropriate and empathetic responses to their student’s behavioral issues and even if teachers receive this training, they are limited in their ability to provide support. Teachers wear many hats but serving as a social worker, mental health specialist, and counselor is definitely not part of the job description.


Why is this important?


These students, who are labeled “problematic”, would benefit from educational support and counseling services.


When a child is removed from school, they are more likely to drop out and wind up in the criminal justice system. When students of color and students with disabilities are unfairly suspended and expelled, their chance of winding up behind bars increases.

Suspending students, instead of providing them with resources and support, implies that the behavioral “deficiencies” of students are self-imposed rather than a product of a system that is embedded with racist, ableist, and sexist ideologies. The United States’ education system is not designed to be inclusive and mindful of the socioeconomic, racial, ableist, and other barriers that students face. Similar to Einstein’s fish, students who are low-income, disabled, and/or people of color, are put in an environment that sets them up for failure. Instead of asking why we are making fish climb the tree, we are blaming the fish for not having legs.


What can schools do to divert the school-to-prison pipeline?


In order to foster a safe learning environment that recognizes the lack of equity that students who are low-income, disabled, and/or people of color experience, schools must provide resources that reflect the belief that all students are capable of success. Here’s how:


By recognizing the consequences of suspending students, we are better able to support their differences, rather than punish them. When we refuse to label children as “problematic” and instead choose to recognize that they are capable of success, this shows students that we believe that they can do and be more. I think it’s about time that we allow Einstein’s fish to do what it does best—swim.



Faith N. is a tutor with Ignite Tutoring LA. To learn more about Faith, visit her profile here.


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