The School to Prison Pipeline: Back to School or Behind Bars

The School to Prison Pipeline: Back to School or Behind Bars
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With back-to-school season upon us, we are inundated with flashy colorful commercials to buy the trendiest school supplies or coolest outfits; but problems with the school system are often kept in the dark, especially ones pertaining to mental health. The School-to-Prison Pipeline (STPP) has been an issue for decades and impacts everyone in the school system and arguably society at large. By people becoming more educated on trauma, we can work together to minimize the effect of the STPP.

The School-to-Prison Pipeline (STPP) refers to the school policies and procedures that drive many of our nation’s school children into a pathway that begins in school and ends in the criminal justice system. While the STPP is a problem that has been in the background of our society for decades, it has often been neglected or improperly addressed. This brings up the question of what makes the STTP so difficult to solve and how can we look at it differently. Current research suggests that many professions and organizations can benefit from trauma-informed practices. This article takes a deeper look into the literature both on ACES and the STTP to demonstrate the clear connections between these topics and how applying trauma-informed practice to the many influential aspects of the STTP can help improve the situation and our society at large.

One of the reasons this issue is often swept under the rug is due to it’s complexity. Many have tried to address the STPP try to fix only one prong of this multifaceted issue. It is not only an education or prison system problem, the STPP involves racial, mental health, governmental, societal, and cultural issues. If all these facets are not addressed in some way, there will not be a resolution to the STPP. While all these aspects need to be put into the ideal solution, this article will focus primarily on the mental health (specifically ACES and trauma), education, and prison system aspects.

As early as Kindergarten students can be suspended or expelled for subjective infractions like being disrespectful or dress code violations. The combination of possible racial profiling and limited support at home means that once children are suspended from school, they do not have the resiliency factors necessary to properly bounce back and go on a successful path. These students tend to have limited access to resources (including education accommodations) and higher ACE scores. ​Additionally, students do not have a place to go during these suspensions/expulsions and may turn to bad activities. Students who get numerous infractions tend to be labeled as disruptive or bad students, which further limits their access to testing and resources these students may need to succeed. Looking at the information about this issue, it is the combination of the following factors that lead students to the juvenile justice system:​ Lack of access to resources, high levels of trauma (high ACE score)​low levels of resilience, lower sense of identity and self-esteem, and not being in school (due to suspension/expulsion).

There are many risk factors for students to be a part of the STPP; however, there are several institutional issues that are the main contributors to the STPP. The first is the use of zero-tolerance policies in schools. A zero-tolerance policy requires school officials to hand down specific, consistent, and harsh punishment—usually suspension or expulsion—when students break certain rules. The punishment applies regardless of the circumstances, the reasons for the behavior (like self-defense), or the student’s history of discipline problems. ​This means that there are subjective infractions, such as disrespecting authority or disrupting the classroom, that have mandatory suspension/expulsion requirements. Though suspensions alone do harm many at-risk students; it is shocking to note that suspensions are the number 1 factor, more than poverty, to determine whether a student will drop out of school and end up in prison.​

The second institutional problem is the overuse of law enforcement in schools. The primary reason law enforcement was put into school settings was to prevent school shootings; however, no research demonstrates that having police in schools has stopped any shootings. While police in schools may not improve safety; Identifying and supporting students with mental health concerns, training staff to identify struggling students, and implementing an anti-bullying curriculum and reliable district procedures​ have all been demonstrated to help with school safety and student well-being. The third institutional problem is the underuse of federally mandated resources for students. ​One of the primary reasons for this is that students who may need services are often dismissed as being “disruptive” or “deviant” students, especially when these students are people of color or have disabilities.  Therefore, these students tend to be deemed ineligible if they are tested at all. ​

Also, having a high ACE score or living in adverse circumstances are not reasons a student can have accommodations. Additionally, because students with higher ACE scores are common in under-funded schools, there have not been programs or accommodations made to help students with these risk factors. Something that is important to note is even if schools had the funding to provide students with every accommodation; without an adult to advocate for a student on their behalf, the student would still have no access to these resources. Students in the STPP tend to not have adult figures in their lives that are available to strongly advocate for them, and this responsibility cannot be left only to teachers and school personnel.

There are many large-scale issues that need to be addressed to help stop the STPP; however, on a smaller scale, implementing restorative justice and trauma-informed practices in schools would be a great first step. Restorative justice programs allow for students to make amends with the person(s) in which their infraction hurt and work together to come up with a remedy to the issue. Rather than simply kicking a student out of school, this approach allows a student to learn from their mistakes and be better prepared for adulthood. In terms of implementing trauma-informed practices, to work with a population that endures trauma daily, trauma-informed practices are essential to allowing these students to succeed. This means that training for teachers and resources for parents need to be readily available, so students have the support they need.

 If you are interested in this issue, there are a few things you can do to help like advocating for your local schools to use restorative justice techniques instead of suspensions and expulsions for dealing with subjective infractions, continuing to educate yourself on trauma-informed practices, and how you can make your work more trauma-informed, calling your local representatives and discuss how the school to prison pipeline needs to be addressed and asking how they will work to help support this issue, and volunteer to be a mentor for a program that helps the youth most often susceptible to the STTP. There are many problems that need our efforts and attention, but making small steps to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves will pay off not only for those in the educational and prison systems but for society at large. 

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