A Downward Spiral: From School to Prison

Olivia Lanctot ’19 – Inside Politics Participant


Thousands of students are entering into the criminal justice system each year on charges such as disorderly conduct, assault, and resisting arrest. Many of these offenses consist of small misdemeanors such as kicking a trashcan, being out past curfew, and the use of foul language. A majority of the students affected by these school discipline policies are disproportionately minority students and students with disabilities. This creates what is commonly referred to as the “school to prison pipeline.”

Students, who are repeatedly referred to school police or placed into the criminal justice system, often become disengaged from school. When students are placed into correctional facilities or suspended from school, students are more likely to participate in more destructive behavior, ultimately increasing the likelihood that those students will end up in jail. And once in the system, there is data that states they will remain in the system. How can these students be expected to achieve academic success when they are unable to attend school or are consistently disengaged from class due to poor disciplinary policies?

In the past few decades, state and local correctional spending nearly doubled compared to elementary and secondary education spending. Fortunately, many states have responded to this problem by taking measures to decrease the amount of students being caught up in this downward spiral.  For example, the United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has urged states to shift this local and state spending on correctional spending on nonaggressive offenders to teachers, particularly at high-poverty schools. In Virginia, where the average referral of students to law enforcement is three times higher compared to the national average, measures have been taken to retrain educators and school police statewide. This retraining will help better equip educators to handle disruptive students and therefore is aimed to stop racial profiling. Additionally, the state is looking to place specific limitations on police intervention in order to decrease the amount of out-of-school suspensions.

Ultimately, the United States has one of the highest incarceration rates and something needs to be done about it. To change this, action on a local level must be taken. Offering school-based alternatives (such as extracurricular activities) can help keep students out of trouble and therefore decrease their chances of one day ending up in jail. All in all, a major reform of the juvenile justice system must be addressed in order to avoid this “school to prison” trend.