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Origins of the School to Prison Pipeline

The School to Prison Pipeline issue is traceable to the 1970s when officials instilled it as one of the first institutions of zero-tolerance policies. Suspensions and expulsions became the standard in disciplinary action for certain offenses, regardless of circumstances or intentions.

School districts and administrators believed that aggressively punishing even the most minor crimes would deter their recurrence, but, in doing so, they propagated the Broken Windows Theory. 

The Broken Windows Theory maintains that crime stems from disorder, signifying that, if something eliminated disorder, serious crimes would not occur. Several scholars have since questioned its validity without the empirical evidence to justify its endurance.

It serves as a broader reflection of the era as a growing concern for crime and violence materialized. President Reagan led the War on Drugs, and Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 to promote safer and healthier schools. However, their rigidity and binding nature shifted the focus from rehabilitation to punishment. 

Neither the Gun-Free Schools Act nor the Anti-Drug Abuse Act includes reformative or supportive services to help students progress and shift their behavior in positive ways. They promote severe, isolating punishments that normalize expulsion, even though zero-tolerance policies are known to harm students profoundly.

For instance, the Gun-Free Schools Act obligated schools to expel students with a weapon while on school property for one year, but the policy has been interpreted broadly since. Teachers and school administrators have the discretion to determine what exactly constitutes a weapon. As such, they have the authority to expel students for relatively minor and non-threatening incidents. Real world examples include expelling students for using their hands to make the shape of a gun and bringing tools for Cub Scouts, like camping forks, to class.

The act set a precedent that facilitated the transition to zero-tolerance policies. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that during the 1996-1997 school year, 90% of public schools extended zero-tolerance guidelines past firearms to include additional weapons. The vast majority, 88%, implemented the practice for illicit substances, 87% for alcohol, 79% for violence, and 79% policies for tobacco violations.

This policy makes no distinction between students who possess a weapon, and students who disrespect their teachers; both are eligible to receive immediate suspensions, expulsions, or referrals to the juvenile justice system. 

 A junior in high school was expelled after flinging a paper clip with a rubber band at a cafeteria worker, even though he intended the paper clip to reach his classmate. 

Two 10-year-old boys in Arlington, Virginia, were referred to the police and suspended for three days after pouring soap water in a teacher’s drink. Police officers charged the children with a felony, whose maximum sentence reaches 20 years. They dismissed the case, but not before the fifth grades were formally processed through the juvenile justice system.

A 12-year-old child in Louisiana, who was diagnosed with a hyperactive disorder, was suspended for two days after telling his classmates not to eat all of the potatoes, or “I’m going to get you.” The student was then referred to police by the principal, who charged the child with making “terroristic threats.” He was incarcerated for two weeks while awaiting trial.

It is well known that the frontal lobe of the brain, the portion responsible for rational thought and behavior, isn’t fully developed until we reach 25 years of age. Equivocating action with intent, as zero-tolerance policies do, removes all grace typically given to children as they mature, and disproportionately affects children with behavioral disorders. We must ask ourselves whether we can find alternatives to such harsh punishment, or whether we will be known for jailing small children for temper tantrums.