Explaining the preschool-to-prison pipeline and suggesting solutions

Explaining the preschool-to-prison pipeline and suggesting solutions

According to data collected from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, African American students in the United States, especially young Black males, are excessively suspended compared to students of other ethnicities and it starts as early as preschool. Data shows that black preschool students are 3.6 times more likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions than white students. Students with disabilities, LGBTQ youth and trauma-affected students are also disproportionately suspended. 

The preschool-to-prison pipeline is the process in which students are pushed out of school through out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and overly-harsh discipline and into the prison system. 

A report by the Equal Justice Society explains that “students removed from the school environment fall behind academically, are at higher risk of getting in trouble, feel stigmatized when they return to school, and are more likely to drop out, never obtaining high school diplomas.” This is why they are easily led down the path of the criminal justice system.

Data from the report shows that students with one suspension or expulsion are three times more likely to enter the juvenile justice system the following year. 

Contributors to the Pipeline/What Needs to be Fixed:

Implicit Bias

Implicit bias is likely the most complex aspect of the preschool-to-prison pipeline. Examples of implicit bias in the school environment would be opinions and stereotypes that administrators may have about certain groups of people (based on race, gender, background, etc.) that are projected onto students unconsciously. This means that the administrator is unaware that they are reflecting their biases onto other people.

Self-reflection is essential for school administrators to ensure that they are not directing their own biases onto students. Implicit bias can fuel the preschool-to-prison pipeline because it becomes very easy for administrators who are unaware of their biases to punish specific groups of people for the same things that another group got away with.

Multiple studies found that black students are more likely to be suspended than white students for the same behavior. Factors to this include implicit bias (unaware/unintentional) and explicit bias (aware/intentional). 

School districts should require awareness training on implicit bias for educators. The first step to conquering implicit bias is to be aware that you have biases and that they have negative consequences for students.

Zero-Tolerance Policies

Zero-tolerance policies are big contributors to the preschool to prison pipeline. When students break specific rules, schools with zero-tolerance policies will discipline by suspension or expulsion with zero exceptions. According to Lawyers.com, this punishment applies regardless of the circumstances. This means that reasons for the behavior like self-defense, disability or home life are completely ignored. 

Art installation by Ndume Olatushani at United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C, which is right next to the U.S. Supreme Court building. Photo by Elvert Barnes Photography

Lawyers.com lists the wide range of misconduct that would result in out-of-school suspensions or expulsion, however, the rules vary from school-to-school:  

  • “bringing any weapon to school, including seemingly innocent items like nail clippers and toy swords
  • having any alcohol or drugs on campus, including tobacco and over-the-counter medications like aspirin or Midol
  • fighting, including minor scuffles
  • threatening other students or teachers, or saying anything that could be perceived as a threat
  • insubordination, which could include talking back to a teacher or swearing in the principal’s office, and
  • any behavior considered disruptive, like cutting in a lunch line.”

Zero-tolerance policies like these were put into place with the intention to make schools safer. However, research has not been able to prove that it is effective.

School Resource Officers

National Association of School Resource Officers mission is to keep schools and children safe. This is needed especially during times like this with how much gun violence is present in schools today. 

While School Resource Officers are a great addition to large schools and schools with safety issues, police presence in schools have been reported to contribute to the preschool to prison pipeline. 

However, the National Association of School Resource Officers disagrees with the studies and reports by organizations like Justice Quarterly, Washington University Law Review and the Justice Policy Institute. These studies all found that school administrators are more likely to refer to discipline and misconduct to law enforcement if an officer is already on campus.

NASRO’s Executive Director spoke with the Justice Policy Institute to defend School Resource Officers. “You can’t criminalize behavior. It is either criminal, or it is not,” Mo Canady, NASRO Executive Director, said to Justice Policy. He explained that SROs could arrest students all day long for misconduct but that wouldn’t do them any good.

Canady explained to Justice Policy that SROs are highly trained and extremely effective at preventing violent crime. School Resource Officers like James Long of Florida and Blaine Gaskill of Maryland prevented two major attacks with little recognition.

Lack of School Mental Health Staff

While funding for school police presence is on the rise, funding for mental health staff has vastly plummeted and is absolutely contributing to the preschool to prison pipeline. 

School counselors, nurses, psychologists and social workers are important for students’ mental and physical health, especially in low-income districts. U.S. public schools today are facing a massive shortage of mental health staff.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, school psychologist or social worker. The millions of students with no access to mental health staff broken down by each mental health position:

  • “1.7 million students are in schools with police but no counselors
  • 3 million students are in schools with police but no nurses
  • 6 million students are in schools with police but no school psychologists
  • 10 million students are in schools with police but no social workers
  • 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker”

While it is an issue that many students are without mental health services, even students with access to these services in their school environment are experiencing shortages and their schools are grossly understaffed. 

The professional recommendations for mental health services are as follows:

  • Recommended at least one counselor and one social worker for every 250 students
  • Recommended at least one nurse and one psychologist for every 700-750 students

The “Cops and No Counselors” report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that 90% of students with mental health services in public schools fail to meet those standards.

Dismantling the Pipeline:

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In situations where support for mental and physical health are nonexistent and administrators are pushing students out of the school environment through suspensions, students are unable to meet their full potential.

According to the organization Change Kids Lives, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a theory that students are unable to perform at their full potential if their basic needs aren’t met. Students across the United States come from all kinds of backgrounds and they all have different lives at home. When they come into the school environment, it is important for administrators to access their students’ needs and adapt instruction to meet those needs.

Change Kids Lives suggests questions that educators must ask themselves to self-reflect on the five needs that should be met in their classroom:

  •  “Are any students entering your classroom without their physiological/physical needs met?
    • These basic needs include food, water, sleep, oxygen and warmth
  • How safe and secure do your students feel in their home, in their school and their classroom?
  • Do all students have a feeling of love & belonging in the classroom?
    • Does each student feel like they belong to a group?
    • Do they have strong relationships with their peers?
  • Do all students feel good about themselves and have good self-esteem?
    • Are you giving powerful verbal feedback to support their self-esteem?
    • Do they believe that their peers think positively about them?
  • The final stage is self-actualization. Do you automatically assume that all students should be achieving at their full potential once they enter the classroom?”

It is extremely important for administrators to self-reflect and ask themselves these questions often. Every student, no matter their background, deserves to have their needs met so that they can reach their full potential. 

Action Plans

The preschool to prison pipeline is a multifaceted fault in the U.S. education system. Some of the main takeaways to help dismantle the pipeline are that a shift in discipline is crucial, we must diversify the teacher workforce and student-teacher relationships need to be strengthened. 

The Equal Justice Society suggests an action plan in their “Breaking the Chains” report to help dismantle the preschool to prison pipeline:

  •  “Instead of treating children like criminals, we should adopt positive interventions and institute supportive approaches such as restorative discipline. 
  • We should focus on strengthening student-teacher relationships and trust, while prioritizing an inclusive and equitable school climate. 
  • We must provide teachers with additional support and training, including training in implicit bias, relevant neuroscience and psychology findings, and trauma-informed strategies. 
  •  We must also make it a priority to recruit teachers and administrators from diverse backgrounds. 
  • We must hold school districts accountable through data collection and reporting. 
  • Finally, we must eliminate zero-tolerance discipline policies.”

Click here to see the preschool-to-prison pipeline data visualized.

To learn more about the inequities in the U.S. school system, go to Education Equity for All.