The school-to-prison pipeline is an unfortunate reality for many students attending public schools in socio-economically disadvantaged areas. For those who are unfamiliar with the phrase, the school-to-prison pipeline describes the alarming trend of public schools pushing socio-economically disadvantaged students out of school and into the criminal justice system. While there are many factors facilitating the school-to-prison pipeline, one significant element is the increase in police intervention and presence in public schools.
School infractions, which would have resulted in detention several years ago, have begun to be defined in legal terms, which are synonymous with criminal conduct. Behavior such as talking back to teachers or speaking out of turn in class has been labeled “disorderly conduct.” Students engaging in seemingly innocuous conduct such as chewing gum, throwing erasers, or wearing too much perfume, have had their records branded with “misdemeanors.”
Zero-tolerance policies have propelled the movement towards an increased criminalization of the student disciplinary system. The cost has been staggering for students forced to attend institutions resembling pre-prison preparatory schools. For many people convicted of crimes, prison is the end of their lives – either because of a life sentence, or because of high recidivism rates. When schools start to resemble a pseudo-prison environment, it becomes difficult for students to believe that they are not simply on a conveyer belt – being churched out as future prison fodder.
Saddled with a criminal record of petty crime, instead of what would have traditionally been a school-based disciplinary record, many are finding it nearly impossible to gain employment or access higher education. Getting a record expunged is time-consuming, costly, and bureaucratically complex – barriers proving to be insurmountable for many low-income students lacking the requisite knowledge and resources. The great irony is that the more we criminalize students, the less opportunity these students have for a non-criminal existence, and a life outside of prison.