Impacting the School to Prison Pipeline

Zero tolerance policies that mandate harsh punishments for minor and major infractions alike and the resulting surge in suspensions and expulsions create a propensity for students to become involved in the criminal justice system. 

Alongside zero-tolerance policies, handcuffing students and removing them from the classrooms has created unnecessary trauma. Children younger than ten years old may legally be placed in physical restraints, such as handcuffs and zip ties. Physical restraints may be metal or plastic and are used to secure a child’s wrists, arms, or legs. The use of handcuffs has been correlated with physical injuries and psychological trauma. The results of handcuff use highlight the importance of limiting their use on children, especially children under the age of 10. 

 Schools tend to become students’ first point of contact with the criminal justice system as schools do not exclusively enable officers to arrest their students but more frequently refer students to law enforcement or juvenile court. Students begin to develop a juvenile record, and the severity of their punishment will merely rise with each additional offense.

Once students have entered the juvenile justice system, the vast majority will never graduate high school, and many more will struggle to re-enter their previous school. They are often placed in unaccredited, alternative schools for students labeled as juvenile delinquents that offer a significantly diminished quality of education.


Children aged 10 - 12, referred to probation programs by their school.


More than one-third of Texas public school students drop out every year


High school dropouts are three times more likely to be incarcerated than graduates


More than 80% of Texas prison inmates are dropouts


Texas students expelled annually for “serious or persistent” behavior


Students as young as 6 years old are subject to the use of force by school police

Roots of the Pipeline

Suspensions were once rare in American schools, but a growing concern for crime and violence led states and districts to adopt policies that mandated suspensions as punishments. Zero tolerance policies became increasingly common, and it became the norm to assign suspensions and expulsions for often minor offenses without considering the circumstances. As a result, suspension rates surged from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million in 2000. 

The drastic, sudden increase was largely a result of the era. President Reagan led the War on Drugs and passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, but minimum sentences’ requirement shifted the focus from rehabilitation to punishment.

Similarly, the passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 was enacted to promote safer, healthier schools. It 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 authority to decide what constitutes a weapon, enabling them to expel students who use their hands to shape a gun or bring tools for Cub Scouts, like camping forks, to class.

A study of Texas discipline policies revealed that 97% of school suspensions were school administrators’ choice, whereas 3% of students had broken rules that listed suspension as a required punishment, such as carrying a weapon to school. The majority of the discretionary suspensions were given to Black students, a disparity that signified they were 31% more likely to receive a discretionary suspension, although the study had considered the effects of 83 other variables and controlled their results accordingly.

Neither the Gun-Free Schools Act nor the Anti-Drug Abuse Act included reformative or supportive services to help students progress and shift their behavior in positive ways. They promote severe, isolating punishments and propagate the disproven Broken Windows Theory. The intent of aggressively punishing traditional ignored, minor offenses to deter them from reoccurring has merely given way to zero-tolerance policies that normalize expulsion. 

How do suspensions and expulsions affect children?


Schools are the second most important and formative site of socialization for children and adolescents, surpassed only by their home environment. They teach children behavioral norms, offer the opportunity to forge lasting bonds, and instill invaluable lessons.

Expulsions isolate students and separate them from a safe, structured environment, often returning them to the source of their stress. Many students misbehave in response to distressing or dangerous conditions in their homes or neighborhoods and rely upon school for relief. 

The child’s development is directly impacted as they return to a problematic or unsupervised environment. Many spend the time they should be in class with those removed for similar reasons and begin to fall behind in coursework without their teachers’ assistance.


Students who have been expelled or suspended are predisposed to academic struggles and diminished performance. The pause in their education leads students to fall behind and fosters disengagement, an issue merely worsened by the financial strains schools face. Classrooms are often overcrowded and lack critical supplies, including textbooks, that inhibit academic performance. Underfunded schools lack strong support systems without the means to afford counselors. 

According to their school’s policies, frustrated students tend to drop out, whereas others are sent to disciplinary alternative schools, further isolating and discouraging children and adolescents.


Expulsions often stem from minor incidents as harmless as attending school without the required uniform or as subjective as being disrespectful. They are rarely violent or merit a measure as extreme as expulsion, leading students to develop a fundamental distrust of authority figures. The negative view holds a profound impact on their future relationships and establishes a cyclical trend as students inevitably encounter additional authority figures but struggle to form positive relationships going forward.

Additionally, students who have been expelled are often labeled as bad or criminal and are ostracized by society. Future teachers tend to become biased against the student before they meet them, and even those who had known the child prior begin to develop a negative view of them. The child’s relationship with their parents, friends, parents of friends, and other community members may suffer as a result, generating feelings of confusion, stress, depression, and anger.

Children become frustrated as they are excluded and treated harshly for reasons they believe are unfair. They struggle to focus on their classes, and many lose their motivation and love of learning, fostering an environment hostile to success without a strong network of support.

Steps to Reroute the Pipeline

The School to Prison Pipeline requires a long-term and comprehensive approach, of which these four are easy to implement and measurable steps.


Repeal Zero-Tolerance

By creating an explicit and measured list of offenses meriting expulsions, it limits the enforcement of arbitrary and unproven harsh punishments on situations that merit alternative approaches.


Establish Force Parameters

Force, such as tasers and pepper spray, should only be used in instances of imminent bodily harm to students or staff. Extensive de-escalation techniques should be prioritized with continuous education and training for student resource officers to prepare them for all eventualities.


System of Accountability

Create accessible reporting documenting disciplinary actions removing students from the classroom to understand trends and best practices.


Implement Restorative Practices

Shifting the focus from punishment to understanding by engaging counselors has been shown to reduce chronic absenteeism and raise graduation rates. There was an 84% decrease in out-of-school suspensions among sixth-graders in one Texas school during the first year the practices were introduced. In a California middle school, they witnessed an 87% reduction in suspensions within two years of implementation.

Their Stories

Yosio Lopez, a 7-year-old boy, was handcuffed, tased, and bruised by Dallas Independent School District Police. Yosio was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and a mood disorder. The school and his teachers were aware of his diagnosis, but when he had an outburst the school police took him away in handcuffs. The boy’s mother reported that Yosio was put on a desk with his arms cuffed behind his back while the school principal put her elbow on his neck.

Kaia, a six-year-old girl was arrested, cuffed, and fingerprinted in a Florida elementary school. The girl’s grandmother stated that Kaia threw a tantrum in her class and was charged with battery after she had kicked a staff member. Kaia suffers from sleep apnea, according to her grandmother Kaia’s tantrum was triggered by sleep deprivation. After Kaia was handcuffed she was driven to the Orlando Juvenile Detention Center where she was fingerprinted and had her mug shot taken. A six-year-old should be photographed playing in the park, not in jail.

Christian Ramirez was only in fourth grade when he was expelled for the first time. After his first expulsion, he was labeled a troublemaker at every school he attended. Christian’s family-life did not help his behavior at school, rather it was the main reason he acted out. At age 15 he was arrested for the first time and at age 16 he learned how to read. Christian was the victim of zero-tolerance policies that perpetuated labeling students and created a situation where Christian was not welcome at school. Students belong in the classroom.

Must-See Videos

Learn more about the school to prison pipeline with these three videos.


School resource officers, which are often referred to as SROs, are often sworn police officers employed by either the local police department or school district.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the number of school resource officers increased by 38% between 1997 and 2007. The drastic increase has been associated with an increasing trend of schools outsourcing punishment to legal authorities.

Although police presence has drastically increased, there has not been a positive correlation shown. Data tends to suggest an inverse relationship in which an excessive presence tends to make students uncomfortable and their policies disproportionately affect minorities. 

A report issued by Texas Appleseed revealed over-policing correlates with an increased likelihood of students dropping out and being referred to the juvenile and criminal justice systems for misbehavior typical of their age group.

Several studies have found a positive relationship. Students who have been suspended or expelled are three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile probation system the following year than one who wasn’t. Similarly, a Texas study found that 23% of students disciplined in middle or high school ended up in contact with a juvenile probation officer.  The trend merely continues as involvement in the juvenile justice system is the single largest predictor for adolescents of involvement in the criminal justice system as an adult.

Nelson Mandela once said, “Our children are the rock on which our future will be built, our greatest asset as a nation. They will be the leaders of our country, the creators of our national wealth who care for and protect our people.” 

His eternal words ring true today as they remind us of treating our future generations with the utmost care and respect. The School to Prison Pipeline highlights just how far we have strayed by enforcing punishments that isolate and exclude children, many of whom have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect. It is imperative to remember to treat all children with equal dignity and understanding. Education is a universal human right and should never be denied.

A lack of funding exacerbates the pipeline as a lack of textbooks and the inability to afford counseling and special education services contribute to delinquency and increased dropout rates.

Students who experience a comparatively lower socioeconomic status are also predisposed to greater adversity. They are more likely to face academic struggles and poor mental health.

Many students are bullied for their clothing choices, especially those that cannot afford the most recent and popular trends. They are also at risk of suspensions if they do not wear the proper school uniform. Many decide not to attend, knowing they will either be bullied or because they feel embarrassed.

Children who become involved in the juvenile justice system are often denied procedural protections in the courts. For instance, the lack of legal representation may reach as high as 80% in certain states. The issue is merely worsened for those in poverty who cannot afford legal counsel.

Few schools can afford enough counselors and resources to help students struggling, although it is estimated that 20% of children in America have a mental illness. Zero-tolerance discipline policies merely worsen the problem as their misbehavior is punished with suspensions, expulsions, and even arrests. 33% percent of those sent to juvenile probation have a diagnosed mental illness.