There is something severely wrong with American public schools. And no, it has nothing to do with cafeteria food, decreased teacher salaries, or lack of funding --although such issues must be rectified. Rather, it is a problem that is a product of ingrained systemic failure that has bred a generation of prisoners born straight out of the classroom--a system otherwise known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The school-to-prison pipeline is a tendency in which discriminatory and harsh school and municipal policies create an environment where children are much more susceptible to being imprisoned or incarcerated. Such policies often include “zero tolerance” that essentially mean strictly enforced regulations and bans on student misbehavior or misconduct.
The term first came into use when former U.S. President Ronald Reagan used the language when he signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. The law created a system of intensive punishment for drug offenders, as it forced a mandatory minimum sentence upon them. Another instance is when Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 that required states to expel students who bring firearms to school.
Although it is clear that zero-tolerance policies were intended for serious offenses, it is also clear that the scope of punishment has grown to encompass far more than that. Minor offenses such as talking back to teachers, bringing over-the-counter prescription drugs on school grounds without a doctors note, and not wearing school uniforms are all under zero-tolerance policies in some states. Oftentimes, context or rationale is completely ignored and students are suspended or subjected to expulsion without any chance to redeem themselves.
This is acutely problematic as a whole, but especially in urban and inner-city areas with increased police presence and with predominantly Black and Latino students. It is deeply startling, yet not surprising, that school disciplinary policies disproportionately affect Black students with Black students comprising 42 percent of multiple suspensions despite making up 16 percent of student enrollment. Black adults are also incarcerated at a rate of 2,306 per 100,000 people, compared to their white counterparts at 450 per 100,000 people. Additionally, Black students also represent 31 percent of school-related arrests and are suspended and arrested three times more than white students. Therefore, this is incredibly worrisome and telling as students who are suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation are almost three times as likely to be involved with the juvenile justice system the following year.
And thus, this is how the school-to-prison pipeline is brought about, becoming a dominant force in mass incarceration. It is a phenomenon in which students spend roughly eight hours a day in an environment that looks for reasons to punish them, then remove them, and then consequently criminalize them. It is a disturbing national trend that stems from an attitude that seeks to punish behavior, rather than rehabilitate it.
There needs to be a massive overhaul. It has gotten to the point where schools have felt the need to implement police officers in schools--a strategy that actually does not equate to less crime. In fact, over-policing does little to stymie illegal activities not only in schools but in neighborhoods as well, as it actually leads to more racial profiling and resentment toward law enforcement. It has become increasingly clear that punitive actions are predatory and do more harm than good.
What America’s youth needs is reformation of school discipline policies, and more specifically, policies that revolve around restorative justice. Restorative justice is a disciplinary approach that shifts the focus away from punishment and instead allows discipline to be more constructive. Restorative justice initiatives involve collaboration between staff and the student to repair the harm caused by disruptive behavior and eventually create fundamental changes in a students’ outlook and relationships. This approach allows for students to reflect on their wrongs and attempt to correct their past mistakes, further preventing them from future trouble.
But critics of restorative justice - as a form of discipline in contrast to punitive justice - often cite the cost of implementing such initiatives at school. It is no doubt that increased school counselors, therapists, and pay for teachers intervening would be a heavy financial burden for school districts. However, schools need to move away from being so adamant on having police and increased security at school. By reducing funding toward hardened police officers or aggressive measures to penalize students, schools can allocate funds toward beneficial resources such as counseling and in-school therapists.
A nation thrives on its developing youth. The school-to-prison pipeline will unfortunately extend for future generations if we immediately shun and cast away those who are misbehaving. Reforming our society begins with ensuring that our youth will have equal chances and opportunities to become valuable members of society.