The Path Toward Incarceration Begins in Class

Schools’ use of exclusionary discipline and zero-tolerance lead to the criminalization of school offenses and results in the funneling of mostly black students, as well as students with disabilities, into the pipeline.

How Bias and Racial Stereotypes Fuel The School to Prison Pipeline



The U.S. prison population is the highest in the world having increased ten-fold since the 1970’s.  (Heitzeg, 2009) Racial disparities are stark, with black men imprisoned six times the rate as white men, and black women twice the rate of white women.  Black youth account for 45 percent of all juvenile arrests even though they are only 17 percent of the youth population. One in three black boys born in 2001 are likely to be imprisoned in their lifetime. (Heitzeg, 2009)

The “school to prison pipeline” refers to the system of exclusionary punishment that results in funneling students from school into the juvenile and criminal justice system.  Exclusionary discipline practices, such as suspension and expulsion, are applied throughout every level of the U.S. school system and lead to negative outcomes for students throughout their school career and beyond.  Students who are targeted by this system of exclusion are not likely to return to an academic track and may find themselves labeled, racially profiled, demoralized, prone to dropping out of school as well as cycling back into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.  

Schools directly deliver students to the criminal justice system. An increasing number of schools are prosecuting students right at school through the system of school resource officers.  Students who are suspended or expelled might experience a double dose of punishment by also being reported to police or by being referred to juvenile courts by school staff. (Heitzeg, 2009) School resource officers are more likely to be found at urban schools and those with high minority student populations.  

The Black Escalation Effect

Black students accounted for 39 percent of all students suspended from school even though they make up only 15.5 percent of all public school students. (U.S. GAO, 2018)  Discipline policies, such as zero-tolerance, that automatically impose exclusionary punishments on students for certain offenses, were adopted widely by districts across the county after the enactment of the 1994 Gun Free Schools Act.   The rhetoric of zero-tolerance was borrowed from the War on Drugs and was intended for the most serious offenses (including weapons, drugs and fighting), but have resulted in severe punishments for all sorts of minor and non-violent offenses such as classroom disruption and tardiness.  Elementary and even pre-school students are increasing targeted for minor misbehaviors through these policies.  Zero-tolerance was behind a five-year old boy being “…arrested, handcuffed and taken to a psychiatric hospital for having a tantrum and knocking papers off the principals desk…” and two ten-year old boys suspended for three days for “…putting soapy water in a teacher’s drink.” (Heitzeg, 2015) 

A history of disciplinary problems is the strongest predictor of school dropout, and of all groups, black students are the most likely to dropout due to disciplinary issues. (Berlowitz et al., 2015)  Black boys drop out of school at the rate of 41 percent – the highest of any population.  In fact, Okonofua & Eberhardt (2105) identify a “black-escalation effect” noting that “…racial disparities in suspension rates are even more stark for students who have been suspended two or more times as opposed to students who have been suspended a single time” and that “…the increase from single to multiple suspensions is significantly greater for black students more than any other racial group.”

The Social Context of the School to Prison Pipeline

Schools indirectly deliver students to the juvenile and criminal justice system, too. Public school policies such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) are foundational to the school to prison pipeline. The NCLB institutionalized high stakes testing and continues to incentivize schools to push out low performing students who might lower schools’ test scores rather than engage in remediation. (Berlowitz et al., 2015)  More broadly, pervasive disparities such as segregation of schools by race and class, lack of college preparatory courses in schools with high populations of students of color and over-representation of students of color in special education all contribute to the problem.  

But the school to prison pipeline is also fed by a socio-political climate in the U.S. where for decades media have saturated the public with images of youth ‘super predators’ who threaten public safety. Racially tinged images and media reports of gang violence and the crack cocaine “epidemic” brought forth a culture of fear and criminalization that seeped into school discipline policies like zero-tolerance that legally require schools to mete out harsh discipline.  The line between schools and the criminal justice system is effectively blurred.  (Heitzeg, 2009)  

Unfortunately, the public’s false perceptions of fear and distrust in strangers are driving the change in school and criminal justice policy. Despite lack of statistical evidence, widespread media reports regularly portray whites as victims of mass violent crimes, usually perpetrated by black and brown youth.  Regular consumers of TV are twice as likely to say crime is the most serious problem in the U.S. and also wrongly believe crime rates are rising. (Heitzeg, 2009)  

However, the culture of fear and white victimization also impacts educators, who are themselves consumers of media.  Pervasive acceptance of the stereotype of ‘dangerous black and brown youth’ has serious implications for school officials, teachers and school employees who interact with school resource officers and the police.  (Berlowitz et al., 2015) Recent incidents of black children as young as five being handcuffed, detained by school resource officers and arrested by police illustrate how racial bias and the perception of racialized fear is so deeply entrenched. 


Examining the use of zero-tolerance by schools in the effort address bullying behavior, Berlowitz et al. (2015) report that  “…teachers and administrators indicated a widespread belief that violent forms of bullying were an intrinsic component of the culture of lower socio-economic Black youth” and that the “…violent behaviors manifested by racial minority students are grounded in cultural norms beyond the control of public educators… Therefore, teachers and administrators were unlikely to explore the efficacy of zero-tolerance policies or possible alternatives.”  Schools with predominantly minority populations are more likely to enforce strict zero-tolerance policies more severely and frequently. (Berlowitz et al., 2015)

Racial and cultural bias in school discipline has been proven in research by Okonofua & Eberhardt (2015).  They studied how race skews teachers’ responses to minor infractions and how a student’s race would make it more likely, or not, that teachers would perceive the infractions as part of a pattern.  They found that that stereotypes can lead teachers to detect behavior patterns across time, and one behavior can influence how a second behavior is perceived. Even when black and white students behaved the same, teachers showed disparities in discipline.  Additionally, “teacher responses may even help to drive racial differences in student behavior – differential treatment by teachers, to some extent, may inspire repeated misbehavior by Black students.” (Okonofua & Eberhardt, 2015)  They noted that the data collected in their study looked “eerily similar” to national school suspension data showing racial disparities.  


The school to prison pipeline describes the practice of schools directly or indirectly sending students into the juvenile and criminal justice system, and it starts in early childhood.  Schools’ use of exclusionary discipline and zero-tolerance lead to the criminalization of school offenses and results in the funneling of mostly black students, as well as students with disabilities, into the pipeline.  Stereotypes perpetuated by the media have contributed to a shift in public and school policy toward racially tinged exclusionary practices and also have ingrained racial bias in educators so much so that some believe certain students, especially black boys, have innate characteristics that make them “prone to make trouble”.  (Okonofua & Eberhardt, 2015) Recent research confirms that racial bias is a factor when teachers dole out discipline. Though the socio-political culture in the U.S. continues to paint the narrative of the “super predator” and contribute to these racial disparities, the school system is adeptly carrying them forth. “The school-to-prison pipeline starts (or is best avoided) in the classroom.” (Elias, 2013)

Berlowitz, M. J., Frye, R. & Jette, K.M. (2015). Bullying and Zero-Tolerance Policies: The School to Prison Pipeline. Psychological Science. Vol. 26(5) 617-624.

Elias, Marilyn. (2013) The School-to-Prison Pipeline. Teaching Tolerance, v52 n43, p39-40.

Heitzeg, N. (2009). Education or incarceration: Zero tolerance policies and the school to prison pipeline. Forum on Public Policy Online, 2.

Okonofua, J. A., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2015). Two strikes race and the disciplining of young students. Psychological Science, 26. 617-624. doi:10.1177/0956797615570365

U.S. Government Accountability Office (U.S. GAO). (2018). K-12 Education: Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys, and Students with Disabilities.