The school-to-prison pipeline: What it is, how it functions, and how we can work to dismantle it

Friday, September 22, 2023
A photo of an empty classroom
With the temperature dropping and leaves falling, school is back in session. Students across our state will be returning to classrooms, but for some caught up in the criminal legal system, that classroom will be inside a youth detention center. To understand how some of our most vulnerable kids end up in youth jails and prisons, we must first understand the systems that criminalize students, especially in our public schools.

Over the past 20 years, a disturbing trend dubbed the “school-to-prison pipeline” has emerged, resulting in high arrest rates of young people, pulling them out of schools and into juvenile detention facilities. The pipeline works in several ways, but at its core is a shift in responsibility for resolving misconduct from schools and administrators to school police and prosecutors. This unnecessarily turns childlike behaviors into crimes.  

Often these so-called “crimes” are vague and pose no real threat to youth and school officials. For example, in Washington it is a crime to disturb school. This law technically encompasses many routine school discipline issues and offers no further explanation to define its scope. Having vague and overly broad laws like this one blurs the legal line between childish misbehavior and criminal activity.
Many schools in Washington have a commissioned police officer on campus, also known as a School Resource Officer. The presence of these school police can escalate youthful and immature actions into arrest and prosecution. For example, school police referred a high school student in Pierce County to the prosecuting attorney on suspected charges of assault in the fourth degree after the student poured chocolate milk on another student in the school lunchroom. Before the school-to-prison pipeline, this might lead to detention and not handcuffs. Luckily, the prosecutor declined to file charges in juvenile court. The next student might not be so lucky.

Arrest is an inappropriate and ineffective way to address the causes of juvenile misbehavior. Numerous studies show that regular police presence increases the likelihood that it will happen. At one point, 100 Washington schools with the largest student enrollments reported referring over 3,400 students to law enforcement. This harms both students and communities. Students who are arrested are more likely to drop out of school, less likely to graduate and more likely to be arrested as young adults. Their communities will ultimately have to grapple with greater poverty, a smaller skilled workforce, and fewer parents at home with their kids – all stemming from everyday decisions to trade school discipline for handcuffs and courtrooms.

Washington law is very clear: school police are prohibited from becoming involved in school disciplinary action. However, very few districts in Washington provide any substantive guidance on the types of matters in which police officers should be involved. This creates unrestricted discretion to use police in schools and excessive reliance on punishment via the criminal legal system.

Not only does handing school discipline over to the criminal legal system hurt student outcomes, but it can also negatively affect the school environment. It can promote distrust in schools, reduce student respect for the authority of school administrators, and cause students to feel alienated. This often has the unintended consequence of more misbehavior in the classroom.

It is also important to keep in mind that not all students are equally targeted by the school-to-prison pipeline. Studies have demonstrated that students of all races misbehave at similar rates, however, national civil rights data shows that Black and Brown students throughout the United States are disproportionately more likely to receive a referral to law enforcement or experience a school-related arrest than white students. Available data also indicates that students of color with disabilities are pushed towards the pipeline at much higher rates than their peers without disabilities.

Once these students make contact with the criminal legal system, odds are, they will continue to be entangled in the system throughout their lives. After being arrested by school police officers, students face a myriad of collateral consequences that harm their future, their families, and their communities. This includes the loss of instructional time and course credits; legal costs and court fees; separation from family; emotional and physical trauma; loss of housing assistance; and loss of employment. These consequences only exacerbate racial and ethnic disparities already entrenched in a legal system where Black youth are five times as likely to be incarcerated as their white peers. To end the school-to-prison pipeline, we must stop criminalizing youthful behavior and remove police as disciplinarians in schools.

You can do your part to slow down, and ultimately stop, the school-to-prison pipeline in your community, too. Roll up your sleeves and use our parents' guide to dig into your school’s student discipline practices. Find out if your school hires school police and inform your student about their rights with police in schools. Use our Parents’ Guide to School Board Advocacy in Washington to demand change. The most important way to fight the school-to-prison pipeline and youth incarceration is to become informed and resist the status quo. Join us in this cause and fight back – for our children’s sake.