The School To Prison Pipeline-Suspensions

Recently, I’ve become fascinated with the school to prison pipe line debate.  This interest developed after conference presentation in which the presenter linked number of days suspended to future jail time, the connection being that because students who are suspended are more likely to drop out of high school, they are also more likely to end up in jail. ( and (

I think think there’s  very interesting theoretical framework-in which students are made docile or incarcerated-it all sounds very Foucault.  I’ve ordered a  few books about it and plan to write more about it in the future-but what I am most interested in this post is the idea of suspensions.    School districts are moving away from suspensions as a form of punishment because they disproportionately impact poor people and people of color.  So that’s why large school districts such as LA Unified to smaller districts no longer allow suspensions for “defiance” and made commitments to cut their suspension rates in half.   The thinking is that the less students are suspended, the more likely they are to graduate, and if they graduate, they’ll likely not to be incarcerated.

Like anything in education,  it sounds great-who knew that you could alter the life of an individual just by NOT suspending?    But of course, it doesn’t really address the point that people end up of dropping out of high school because of the behavior that lead to the suspension, not because of the suspension itself.    The weakness of the plan is the flaw of most secondary school interventions-the powers that be can’t imagine that a student has agency -and therefore, student behavior is completely dependent on what teachers (the people who see them  for just an hour a day)and the school do or don’t do.   In this way of thinking, undesirable behavior becomes  at best the teacher’s challenge and at worst, the teacher’s fault.   On the more innocuous end of the spectrum,   if a student has behavioral issues,  teachers have to outline what other “interventions” they have tried before referring a student to the principal-so they’ll ask,  have you talked to them?  changed their seat?  given them a detention?  contacted their parents?  etc.    Simultaneously, teachers are also discouraged from reporting smaller infractions to the principal, because then the principal thinks they lack “classroom management”.On the far end of the spectrum is actual blame put on the teacher.

For example,  during my second year of teaching,  a student tampered with my bottle of water and put hand sanitizer  in it.  I almost drank it,  luckily another student warned me .  As you can imagine, I found the whole thing very upsetting-I expect to deal with many things during the course of my day-but I don’t (and shouldn’t) expect to be poisoned.   After an investigation, my principal blamed me for the incident, telling me that it would never have happened if I hadn’t left my water out for a student to tamper with, and that in the future, I should be more careful.     There also seemed to be the underlying assumption that  the student wouldn’t have victimized me if they had liked me more,  so it’s was also my fault because I hadn’t built enough rapport with them.  Clearly the student was deeply troubled, the problem is that because I was blamed, the student didn’t receive the intervention they so desperately needed.     By minimizing dangerous student behavior-it only puts the student more at risk, because the underlying problem isn’t addressed.    I’ve had colleagues pushed and punched by students,   and then told it was their fault for not moving out of the way,   then are discouraged from filing police reports.

Which brings me to my second point, schools don’t write laws for the juvenile justice, nor do they get to define what constitutes “criminal behavior” – yet, criminal activity is happening in public schools.   Whether it is drug dealing ,  weapons,  gang activity.    It’s already happening-it’s not like the school system is producing people who will have problems with the criminal justice system-students are already having problems when they come to school.     I think that says more about the shortcomings of our criminal justice system than it does about education.  Poor students are jailed for fighting and for drug use, while well-off kids get to go to rehab or a special camp.   Schools are put in a moral quandary–do they turn in the kid who brought a weapon to school when they’re close to graduation? When they know the reason why the kid is bringing a weapon to school- maybe they have to walk through rival gang territory,  some other kid threatened them or their parent is abusive?  Do they really want to involve the police?    Or do they pretend they didn’t see it and assign a detention for being out of class for too long?   If they do call the police,  there’s the guilt of wondering how they failed that student,  were there warning signs?  Is there something else the school should have done?   It’s  exactly these kinds of questions that make the discipline system unreliable.  Schools struggle with remaining flexible,  while also providing pathways for students to make better decisions, to own their choices, without sending a kid to jail.

Moreover, the criminal justice system is making incursions into public education, and not just probation officers.   Teachers are encouraged to help identify gang members so they can become “certified”.  Ostensibly, this so the student can receive additional support and services, but the unintended consequence is that once a minor is certified as a gang member,  it will add enhancement charges to future crimes, so that they end up spending more time in Juvey and less time in school.

So we seem to be at odds- the primary function of a school is educate students,   the primary function of the juvenile justice system to is to punish and rehabilitate.    Neither system is equipped to ameliorate the underlying conditions that impact children-issues like poverty, homelessness,  the failing foster system, abuse,  and addiction.

I have talked about troubled students, I haven’t talked about all of the other students in the room-the 35 other students who don’t feel the need to interrupt class, who respond to normal interventions, who aren’t hitting their teachers, or dealing drugs on campus.    The lack of effective behavioral interventions puts these students at risk.    If students see another student hit a teacher, and nothing really happens-why would they feel safe on campus?  Why would they think that the school could do anything about a kid threatening them?  Why would they think that reporting crimes happening on campus is useful?   Here’s what’s fascinating to me- by not actually dealing with students as though they do have choices,  and by minimizing behavior-schools actually perpetuate criminalization.   When people who are hurt are blamed,  it perpetuates the whole “snitches get stitches” mentality-by minimizing drug dealing on campus,  the school is giving the drug dealer a market,  it’s guaranteeing that other kids are getting high, and subsequently getting into trouble, and therefore are not in the classroom.  So the question becomes, in secondary education-how do you balance safety  with the morality of criminalizing teenagers and the fact that everyone, including those 35 other students, has a right to a quality education?

Furthermore,  I have to point out that education is NOT The same thing as social activism.   Yes, education can change people’s perspective.   Yes, caring adults can work together with students,  and students can and do make better choices.     Yes, students should have access to other kinds of learning environments, where they can supported and learn in smaller classes. Yes, the majority of kids mess up when they’re teenagers, and turn out to be amazing adults.    Yes, every teenagers deserves a second and a third and a fourth and a fifth chance, and compassion and understanding and kindness.   However,  schools should not and cannot be burdened with not only teaching content, and providing cursory services and nutrition for students- but also being the ONLY safety net a child has, and the only thing that can possibly save a student from a life of crime or death or worse.    What schools are equipped to do is educate people.   There is no easy solution-but it would make more sense, if there was a third party involved-that was neither school nor police-that provided psychological, family and nutrition services for youth and families, that way people would stop confusing a failure of society, and the dearth of social services with a failure of education.


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