In recent years, there has been an increased focus on the school-to-prison pipeline. Traditionally, this term has been used to refer to the disproportionate number of black and brown children who are suspended or expelled from school.

Out-of-school suspensions, particularly for Black students, have increased in the past two decades even though this strategy is largely ineffective and can be damaging to long-term success.

Statistics indicate that Black children are 1.8 times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than their White peers, with Black boys being more affected by these disciplinary actions. In fact, they are suspended or expelled at a rate of 3.5 times greater than White children (Carter, Fine, & Russell, 2014; Dupper & Bosch, 1996; Finn & Servoss, 2013).

Although suspensions and expulsions are generally associated with older children, recent statistics suggest that an alarming number of young children, who are overwhelmingly Black, are being excluded from early learning environments.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (2016, 2014) has reported that young Black children are suspended or expelled at up to 4 times the rate of White children.

These statistics are alarming and paint a rather bleak picture of our current educational system. The phrase ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ has brought much-needed attention to this ongoing problem with America’s schools…

However, when we isolate this issue within the context of the educational system, we are unable to address the issue in a meaningful way. The school-to-prison pipeline is a complex problem that requires a multifaceted approach.

In reality, disproportionate suspensions and expulsions are a societal issue that have their roots deep within the history of our country. From the beginning, our country’s economic system was set up to benefit White, landowning men over all others.

Slavery and the subjugation of an entire group of people provided the impetus for achieving and holding onto privilege and power.

Throughout the course of our history, those in power have put a variety of structures (e.g., policies, laws, practices) in place that perpetuate a society where it is incredibly difficult for Black families to achieve upward mobility.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty (2016), 12% of White children are poor compared to 34% of Black children. Similarly, 17% of Black children are living in deep poverty while only 5% of White children experience the same living conditions (Kobalt and Jiang 2018).

Researchers have found that nearly two out of three children born into the bottom fifth of the income distribution remain in the bottom two-fifths of the income distribution as adults (Isaacs, Sawhill, and Haskins 2009). That is, if a child is born into poverty then there is a very good chance that that child will remain in poverty as an adult.

Because of its disproportionate nature, a greater number of Black families are faced with multigenerational poverty, where lack of resources and income are passed down from one generation to the next.

Adding to these already dire circumstances, conditions in high-poverty neighborhoods significantly influence the direction of the lives of children and youth (Acedvedo-Garcia et al. 2008).

Being born into poverty nearly ensures that young children are behind from the start because their families have less access to resources needed for healthy development (e.g., lack of stable housing, nutritious food, enriched home environments, high-quality health care services), which can lead to prenatal complications, low birthweight babies, and delayed acquisition of key developmental skills.

In addition, children who live in high-poverty neighborhoods are more likely to exhibit externalizing behaviors, earn low grades, and drop out of school primarily due to the stress and trauma associated with living in poverty.

“The school-to-prison pipeline is the symptom of a much larger problem within our society.”

Boys of color, in particular, are disproportionately shut out of meaningful educational opportunities because of ineffective disciplinary practices. Many Black children attend high-poverty, low performing schools with inexperienced teachers and fewer opportunities to enroll in advanced classes.

This opportunity gap is directly correlated with higher dropout rates among Black students (Brooks-Gunn and Duncan 1997).

An added layer to all of this is the historical characterization of Black men and boys. Thelma Golden (1995) argues that the Black male is “one of the greatest inventions of the twentieth century” because it projects fear in the American psyche (Golden 1995, 19).

Historically, for Black men, the notion of being ‘animalistic’ has been particularly defining.

Overt attitudes and beliefs about Black males have morphed over time into biases that are more subconscious and are a by-product of our national memory that influences how Black children, particularly boys, are disciplined within classrooms and schools today (Brown 2018).

If we are truly committed to eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline, a serious reckoning must occur within this nation, not only by those in positions of power and privilege, but also by White people whose comfort with the status quo ensures that inequitable policies and practices remain in place unchallenged.

The inequities within our educational system are never meaningfully addressed because the status quo largely does not affect White children and families in a negative way.

What is needed is more listening, learning, and understanding about our country’s institutions, how they came to be, and how they were set up from the very beginning to create systems that benefit White children and families over all others.

The deep segregation within our country’s cities and towns allows us to look away from what is happening in the schools and neighborhoods across town. White ignorance and avoidance of the deep issues within our country’s infrastructure ensures that nothing ever changes.

We must become more willing to share our privilege and power so that under-resourced schools get the professional development and supports needed to adequately address historical trauma, implement disciplinary practices that are grounded in teaching rather than punishment, and ensure that more qualified staff are in classrooms to provide high-quality instruction.

More importantly, as a society, we must be focused on eradicating disproportionate poverty. This will require that we move beyond the current ‘blame the victim’ mentality so that we can shift responsibility back into the hands of those who are in positions of privilege and power.

Structural barriers have created a climate where multigenerational poverty thrives. The school-to-prison pipeline is the symptom of a much larger problem within our society.

Dismantling structures that uphold the racial caste system within our society provides a context for creating and implementing more equitable policies and practices that are truly focused on addressing the centuries-old roots of the school-to-prison pipeline. Only then will we be able to work toward a more just society.

Click here for more content by Jen Neitzel, Ph.D.!

Jen Neitzel, Ph.D.
Jen started her career in early childhood education over 20 years ago in the classroom teaching young children with significant behavioral challenges.

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