Schools to Prison Pipeline

The school-to-prison pipeline is a term which we first coined from the USA where there is much more research that has been done and long term evidence. The Schools to Prison Pipeline is a process through which students are pushed out of schools and into prisons. In other words, it is a process of criminalising youth that is carried out by disciplinary policies and practices within schools that put students into contact with law enforcement. Once they are put into contact with law enforcement for disciplinary reasons, many are then pushed out of the educational environment and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Despite much focus being in the USA, the same model is being applied right here in the UK. However, statistical or “government”data and evidence is not as widely reported so we have used this US case study to give you an in-depth overview as the UK is following this very model.

The school-to-prison pipeline is supported by budgetary decisions made by the U.S. government. From 1987-2007, funding for incarceration more than doubled while funding for higher education was raised by just 21 percent, according to PBS. In addition, evidence shows that the school-to-prison pipeline primarily captures and affects Black students, which mirrors the over-representation of this group in America’s prisons and jails.

How It Works

The two key forces that produced and now maintain the school-to-prison pipeline are the use of zero tolerance policies that mandate exclusionary punishments and the presence of PCSO’s & Social Workers on school grounds. These policies and practices became common following a deadly spate of school shootings across the U.S. in the 1990s (despite these shootings being carried out by white students). Lawmakers and educators believed they would help to ensure safety on school campuses. Having a zero tolerance policy means that a school has zero tolerance for any kind of misbehavior or violation of school rules particularly where a black child is concerned, no matter how minor, unintentional, or subjectively defined it may be. In a school with a zero tolerance policy, exclusions and expulsions are normal and common ways of dealing with what has been perceived as student misbehavior.


Impact of Zero Tolerance Policies

Research shows that the implementation of zero tolerance policies has led to significant increases in exclusions and expulsions. Citing a study by Michie, education scholar Henry Giroux observed that, over a four-year period, exclusions increased by 51 percent and expulsions by nearly 32 times after zero tolerance policies were implemented in Chicago schools. They jumped from just 21 expulsions in the 1994–95 school year to 668 in 1997–98. Similarly, Giroux cites a report from the Denver Rocky Mountain News that found that expulsions increased by more than 300 percent in the city’s public schools between 1993 and 1997. Once excluded or expelled, data show that students are less likely to complete high school, more than twice as likely to be arrested while on forced leave from school, and more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system during the year that follows the leave. In fact, sociologist David Ramey found, in a nationally representative study, that experiencing school punishment before the age of 15 is associated with contact with the criminal justice system in particular for boys. Other research shows that students who do not complete high school are more likely to be imprisoned.

How PCSo’s Facilitate the Pipeline

In addition to adopting harsh zero tolerance policies, most schools across the country now have police & social workers present on school grounds on a daily basis and most boroughs require educators to report student misbehavior to law enforcement. The presence of PCSO’s on school grounds means that students have contact with law enforcement from a young age. Though their intended purpose is to protect students and ensure safety on school premises, in many instances, the police handling of disciplinary issues escalates minor, non-violent infractions into violent, criminal incidents that have negative impacts on students.


By studying the distribution of federal funding for PCSO’s and rates of school-related arrests, criminologist Emily G. Owens found that the presence of PCSO’s on campus causes law enforcement agencies to learn of more crimes and increases the likelihood of arrest for those crimes among children under the age of 15.

Christopher A. Mallett, a legal scholar and expert on the school-to-prison pipeline, reviewed evidence of the pipeline’s existence and concluded that “the increased use of zero tolerance policies and police…in the schools has exponentially increased arrests and referrals to the juvenile courts.” Once they have made contact with the criminal justice system, data show that students are unlikely to graduate high school.


Overall, what over a decade of empirical research on this topic proves is that zero tolerance policies, punitive disciplinary measures like exclusions and expulsions, and the presence of PCSO’s on campus have led to more and more students being pushed out of schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. In short, these policies and practices created the school-to-prison pipeline and sustain it today. But why exactly do these policies and practices make students more likely to commit crimes and end up in prison? Sociological theories and research help answer this question.


Institutions and Authority Figures Criminalise Students

One key sociological theory of deviance, known as labeling theory, contends that people come to identify and behave in ways that reflect how others label them. Applying this theory to the school-to-prison pipeline suggests that being labeled as a “bad” kid by school authorities and/or PCSO’s, and being treated in a way that reflects that label (punitively), ultimately leads children to internalise the label and behave in ways that make it real through action. In other words, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.


A self-fulfilling prophecy is a sociological term used to describe what happens when a false belief influences people’s behavior in such a way that it ultimately shapes reality. This concept has appeared in many cultures for centuries, but American sociologist

Robert K. Merton coined the term and developed it for use in sociology.


Today, the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy is commonly used by sociologists as an analytic lens through which to study student performance, deviant or criminal behavior, and the impact of racial stereotypes on targeted groups.


Sociologist Victor Rios found just that in his studies of the effects of policing on the lives of Black and Latino boys in the San Francisco Bay Area. In his first book, Punished: Policing the Lives of Black Boys, Rios revealed through in-depth interviews and ethnographic observation how increased surveillance and attempts at controlling “at-risk” or deviant youth ultimately foster the very criminal behavior they are intended to prevent.

In a social context in which social institutions label deviant youth as bad or criminal, and in doing so, strip them of dignity, fail to acknowledge their struggles, and do not treat them with respect, rebellion and criminality are acts of resistance. According to Rios, then, it is social institutions and their authorities that do the work of criminalizing youth. As we know right here in the UK we have faced the same issues since we have been here en-mass since the Windrush, we have seen how the UK governments have treated people from the Caribbean who fought on the front line of British Wars, were invited to the UK to rebuilt after World War 2 however in 2019 onward after 70+ years of working and building a life in the UK, find themselves being unceremoniously deported to the Caribbean where they have no friends or family members.


Not only are the UK African & Caribbean people facing this type of blatant systematic racism, their children are also facing even worse treatment via the education system, as well as all walks of society. The systematic construct of Racism is such, that many Black people are told they have a “chip on their shoulder” when a legitimate complaint about racism is raised through formal channels.

 Exclusion from School, Socialisation into Crime

The sociological concept of socialisation also helps shed light on why the school-to-prison pipeline exists. After family, school is the second most important and formative site of socialisation for children and adolescents where they learn social norms for behavior and interaction and receive moral guidance from authority figures. Removing students from schools as a form of discipline takes them out of this formative environment and important process, and it removes them from the safety and structure that the school provides. Many students who express behavioral issues at school are acting out in response to stressful or dangerous conditions in their homes or neighborhoods, and in many cases have underlying conditions which have never been diagnosed by the school, so removing them from school and returning them to a problematic or unsupervised home environment hurts rather than helps their development.

While removed from school during a fixed term exclusion or permanent exclusion, youth are more likely to spend time with others removed for similar reasons, and with those who are already engaged in criminal activity. Rather than being socialised by education-focused peers and educators, students who have been fixed-term or permanently excluded will be socialised more by peers in similar situations. Because of these factors, the punishment of removal from school creates the conditions for the development of criminal behavior. Many children are often placed in environments which do not meet their social, emotional, or academic needs. Children placed in Pupil referral Units are often “dumped” there and lessons which support their Age, Aptitude or Ability are rarely delivered. Less than 1% of children who attend a Pupil referral Unit (PRU) leave with any meaningful exams, if any at all, and are more likely to be involved in street violence and criminal activity as they get older.

Harsh Punishment

Further, treating students as criminals when they have done nothing more than act out in minor, non-violent ways weakens the authority of educators, police, and other members of the juvenile and criminal justice sectors. The punishment does not fit the crime and so it suggests that those in positions of authority are not trustworthy, fair, and are even immoral.


Black children with Additional needs have the Highest rate of permanent exclusions from mainstream school’s, despite government guidelines presenting them as being a “protected Characteristic” Black children find themselves in pupil referral units usually because schools have failed to follow standard protocols of supporting the child.

Children who may need an assessments for an undiagnosed need are also high risk of being permanently excluded from school.

Seeking to do the opposite, authority figures who behave this way can actually teach students that they and their authority are not to be respected or trusted, which fosters conflict between them and students. This conflict then often leads to further exclusionary and damaging punishment experienced by students.


The Stigma of Exclusion

Finally, once excluded from school and labeled bad or criminal, students often find themselves stigmatised by their teachers, parents, friends, parents of friends, and other community members. They experience confusion, stress, depression, and anger as a result of being excluded from school and from being treated harshly and unfairly by those in charge. This makes it difficult to stay focused on school and hinders motivation to study and desire to return to school and to succeed academically.

Cumulatively, these social forces work to discourage academic studies, hinder academic achievement and even completion of high school, and push negatively labeled youth onto criminal paths and into the criminal justice system. The School’s To Prison Pipeline


Black Students Face Harsher Punishments and Higher Rates of Fixed term & permanent Exclusion

While Black people are just 3 percent of the total UK population, they comprise one of the greatest percentage of people in prisons—40 percent. Black Males are also over 9X’s more likely to suffer with mental health conditions, which again, due to little support & diagnosis given they often fall through the cracks. Data from across the UK that illustrate punishment and school-related arrests show that the racial disparity in criminality begins with the school-to-prison pipeline. Research shows that both schools with large Black populations, or where a black child is the minority in a majority white setting,and underfunded schools, are more likely to employ zero tolerance policies. Nationwide, Black students face far greater rates of fixed-term and permanent exclusion than do white students. In addition, data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics “USA” show that while the percentage of white students excluded fell from 2016 to 2019, the percentage of Black and students excluded rose.


Tests of the racial threat hypothesis, linking the racial composition of place to various measures of social control, find that where there are greater percentages of blacks, more punitive criminal justice policies are implemented. Just as the criminal justice system continues to get tougher on crime despite stagnant crime rates, it is also clear that schools are becoming harsher toward student misbehavior and delinquency despite decreases in these school-based occurrences.


However, only a very limited number of studies have been able to partially explain this trend of intensifying social control in schools. Using a national sample of 294 public schools, the present study is the first to test the racial threat hypothesis within schools to determine if the racial composition of students predicts greater use of punitive controls, regardless of levels of misbehavior and delinquency.


Results of multivariate analyses support the racial threat perspective, finding that schools with a larger percentage of black students are not only more likely to use punitive disciplinary responses, but also more likely to use extremely punitive discipline and to implement zero tolerance policies. They also use fewer mild disciplinary practices and restitutive techniques. In addition, racial threat is more influential when school delinquency and disorder are lower.


A variety of studies and metrics show that Black students are punished more frequently and more harshly for the same, mostly minor, offenses than are white students. Legal and educational scholar Daniel J. Losen points out that, though there is no evidence that these students misbehave more frequently or more severely than do white students, research from across the country shows that teachers and administrators punish them more—especially Black students. Losen cites one study that found that the disparity is greatest among non-serious offenses like mobile phone use, violations of dress code, or subjectively defined offenses like being disruptive or displaying affection. Black first-time offenders in these categories are excluded at rates that are double or more than those for white first-time offenders.


According to the our own research, about 5 percent of white students have been excluded during their schooling experience, compared with 16 percent of Black students. This means Black students are more than three times as likely to be excluded than their white peers. Though they comprise just 7 percent of the total enrollment of school students, Black students comprise 32 percent of in-school exclusions and 39 percent of out-of-school exclusions. Troublingly, this disparity begins as early as nursery. Nearly half of all nursery students excluded are Black, though they represent just 18 percent of total nursery enrollment. They represent 2 percent of out-of-school exclusions, which is 4 times greater than the percentage of total enrolled students that they comprise.


Black students are also far more likely to experience multiple fixed term exclusions before permanent exclusion. Though they are just 16 percent of the public school enrollment, they are a full 42 percent of those excluded multiple times. This means that their presence in the population of students with multiple exclusions is more than 2.6 times greater than their presence in the total population of students. Meanwhile, white students are under-represented among those with multiple exclusions, at just 31 percent. These disparate rates play out not only within schools but also across boroughs on the basis of race. Data shows that in London & the Midlands, permanent exclusion figures in a mostly-Black school borough are double what they are in a mostly-white one.


There is also evidence that shows that the overly harsh punishment of Black students is concentrated in the areas where the is little to no understanding of cultural norms, predominance of white teachers who’s conscious and unconscious bias manifest in  systematic exclusionary policies and persistent harsh treatment towards children with additional needs which have a direct impact on these children in every day life. Of the 58 thousand Black students who were excluded nationwide during the 2018-2019 academic year, more than half were located in 13 London Academy schools. In many o boroughs, Black students comprised 100 percent of students fix-term excluded or permanently excluded in a given academic year.

Among this population, students with disabilities are even more likely to experience exclusionary discipline. Research shows that “more than one out of four boys of color with disabilities… and nearly one in five girls of color with disabilities receives an out-of-school exclusion.” Meanwhile, research shows that white students who express behavioral issues in school are more likely to be treated with medicine, nurture, support and all other methods of assistance which reduces their chances of ending up in jail or prison after acting out in school.


Black Students Face Higher Rates of School-Related Arrests and Removal from School System

Given that there is a connection between the experience of exclusions and engagement with the criminal justice system, and given that racial bias within education and among police is well-documented, it is no surprise that Black students comprise 70 percent of those who face referral to law enforcement or school-related arrests.

Once they are in contact with the criminal justice system, as the statistics on the school-to-prison pipeline cited above demonstrate, students are far less likely to complete high school. Those that do may do so in “alternative provisions” or (PRU’s) for students labeled as “juvenile delinquents,” many of which are unaccredited and offer lower quality education than they would receive in public schools. Or Academies Others who are placed in juvenile detention centers or prison may receive no educational resources at all.


The racism embedded in the UK education system which produces the school-to-prison pipeline, is a significant factor in producing the reality that Black students are far less likely than their white peers to complete high school and that Black, people are much more likely than white people to end up in jail or prison and serve longer sentences for a crime a white person would get less time for.


What all of this information shows us, is that not only is the school-to-prison pipeline very real, but also, it is fueled by systematic racial bias and produces racist outcomes that cause great harm to the lives, families, and communities of Black children across the United Kingdom.