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Exploring the School-to-Prison Pipeline: How School Suspensions Influence Incarceration During Young Adulthood

1 Department of Sociology, Bowling Green State University, OH, USA

John J. Brent

2 School of Justice Studies, Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond, KY, USA

Thomas J. Mowen

A growing body of research has evoked the life-course perspective to understand how experiences in school relate to a wide range of longer term life outcomes. This is perhaps best typified by the notion of the school-to-prison pipeline which refers to a process by which youth who experience punitive punishment in schools are increasingly enmeshed within the criminal justice system. While this metaphor is commonly accepted, few studies have examined the extent to which exclusionary school discipline significantly alters pathways toward incarceration as youth transition into young adulthood. Applying a life-course perspective and leveraging 15 waves of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, this study examines how school suspensions influence the odds of imprisonment during young adulthood. Mixed-effects longitudinal models demonstrate that receiving a suspension serves as a key turning point toward increased odds of incarceration, even after accounting for key covariates including levels of criminal offending. However, results show that repeated suspensions do not appear to confer additional risk of incarceration. Results carry implications for the ways in which school punishment impacts youths’ life-course.

Although mounting scrutiny over school discipline has led to various reform initiatives (see Gregory, Clawson, Davis, & Gerewitz, 2016 ; Hirschfield, 2018a ), the use of punitive and exclusionary punishment practices persists across the United States ( Kupchik, 2016 ; Musu-Gillette, Zhang, Wang, Zhang, & Oudekerk, 2018 ). Recent reports from the Department of Education’s (2018) Office of Civil Rights reveal that approximately 2.7 million students experienced at least one out-of-school suspension during the 2015–2016 academic year. In fact, estimates suggest that about one third of all students in the United States will receive at least one suspension by the time they graduate from high school ( Shollenberger, 2015 ). These trends, which have largely increased over the last few decades ( Department of Education, 2018 ), become more salient when considering there have been significant decreases in offending and violence within schools since the late 1980s ( Musu-Gillette et al., 2018 ). Furthermore, research has tied exclusionary practices to a host of negative outcomes including lower levels of attendance, self-esteem, academic performance, and graduation as well as higher levels of anxiety, dropout, delinquency, victimization, and arrest (for a thorough overview, see Welsh & Little, 2018 ).

To compound matters, the current landscape of school discipline extends beyond suspensions to include a variety of practices to prevent and punish delinquent behaviors ( Hirschfield, 2008 ). The spread of security mechanisms in the form of surveillance systems, drug-sniffing dogs, metal detectors, and school resource officers, for example, have increased over the past few decades ( Casella, 2006 ; Musu-Gillette et al., 2018 ). Furthermore, punitive policies have become increasingly procedural and standardized, preventing school officials from using their discretion when administering disciplinary sanctions (for an overview, see Kupchik, 2016 ). As such, the growing use of zero tolerance policies throughout the 1990s contributed to a significant increase in suspensions and expulsions across schools in the United States ( Hirschfield, 2008 ). When taken in sum, this assemblage of punishment practices has been indicted with establishing a school-to-prison pipeline ( Skiba, Arredondo, & Williams, 2014 ; Wald & Losen, 2003 ; for a thorough overview of the metaphor, see Crawley & Hirschfield, 2018 ). This pipeline refers to a process whereby youth who are punished under criminalized disciplinary practices find themselves in contact with the criminal justice system ( Hirschfield, 2008 ; Wald & Losen, 2003 ; see also Simmons, 2017 , p. 4, concept of the prison school).

Cast against research applying the life-course perspective, scholars have recently highlighted that school discipline can serve as a turning point that negatively affects individuals’ future outcomes ( Mowen & Brent, 2016 ). The life-course perspective recognizes that pivotal life events such as criminal justice contact are aligned with life-course trajectories associated with other adverse outcomes including incarceration, arrest, and future offending (for an overview, see Sampson and Laub, 2005 ). Recent studies have demonstrated that school discipline can serve as a turning point both toward increased risk of arrest ( Mowen & Brent, 2016 ) and increased levels of offending ( Mowen, Brent, & Boman, 2019 ) as youth progress through school. Moreover, school discipline can contribute to increased turmoil within the family (e.g., Kupchik, 2016 ), sever student bonds to their family and school ( Mowen et al., 2019 ), and place youth at greater risk of dropping out of school ( Crawley & Hirschfield, 2018 ). Despite the understanding that school discipline can function as a turning point (e.g., Mowen & Brent, 2016 ) and that school suspensions are tied to a number of negative short-term outcomes (see Crawley & Hirschfield, 2018 , for an overview), understanding the longer term outcomes and specific pathways through which suspensions promote the school-to-prison pipeline remains theoretically and empirically clouded.

Overall, despite the knowledge that school discipline contributes to deleterious outcomes for youth and young adults, few studies have examined how school discipline functions as a turning point across time that may function to promote incarceration as youth move into adulthood. Consequently, while the pipeline between school discipline and prison is a commonly accepted metaphor, few studies have directly examined this relationship. This oversight is particularly notable in light of the widespread use of exclusionary school sanctions, their association with well-established negative outcomes, and their potential to significantly alter life-course outcomes (e.g., Mowen & Brent, 2016 ). To address this gap in the literature, the current study adopts a life-course framework and leverages 15 waves of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997 ( n LSY97) to examine the extent to which school suspensions experienced during adolescence are associated with the odds of incarceration in young adulthood.

Life Course and the Continuity of Negative Events

Starting in the late 1970s and 1980s, an intellectual resurgence took place within criminology focusing on understanding the longitudinal development of antisocial behavior, juvenile delinquency, and adult crime ( Blumstein, Cohen, & Farrington, 1988 ; Blumstein, Cohen, Roth, & Visher, 1986 ; Caspi, 1987 ; Elder, 1975 ; Loeber, 1982 ). During this time, scholars began developing theoretical frameworks to explain the onset, persistence, and desistence of criminal conduct as youth moved into—and through—adulthood ( Elder, 1975 ; Loeber, 1982 ; Moffitt, 1993 ; Sampson & Laub, 1993 , 1997 ). As a result, research began focusing on criminogenic and prosocial events influencing criminal pathways over time ( Elder, 1985 ; Laub & Sampson, 2003 ; Sampson & Laub, 1993 ). These pivotal life events would later be conceptualized as turning points by Sampson and Laub (1993) , which marked events in one’s life that disconnected their past from their present. Serving as catalysts for social and behavioral transitions, turning points can be either prosocial or antisocial. Prosocial turning points, or life events promoting criminal desistance, often include a stable marriage, engaged parenthood, gainful employment, academic achievements, and successful military service. Antisocial turning points, or those events encouraging criminal persistence, frequently include divorce, family instability, unemployment, educational failure, and criminal justice involvement (for an overview, see Sampson & Laub, 2005 ).

To further explain criminal pathways across time, the life-course perspective borrows Caspi’s (1987) concepts of cumulative continuity and interactional continuity. Cumulative continuity refers to the accumulation of life consequences, while interactional continuity denotes repeatedly provoking reactions from others ( Caspi, 1987 ). Within the realm of life-course criminology, these concepts suggest that negative turning points and maladaptive behaviors can evoke a durable sequence of reinforcing conditions that increasingly build onto one another as they hinder future outcomes ( Sampson & Laub, 1997 ; see also Elder, 1998 ; Moffitt, 1993 ). For Sampson and Laub (1997) , this represents a process of cumulative disadvantage in which the sustained consequences of criminal justice contact limit opportunities in conventional domains. Further, Sampson and Laub (1997) contend that the sustained continuity between negative outcomes is intimately linked to four institutions of social control—two of which being schools and state sanctions.

Schools, Discipline, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline Metaphor

A review of criminology’s theoretical infrastructure demonstrates that schools have long been central institution under examination ( Cernkovich & Giordano, 1992 ; Rocque, Jennings, Piquero, Ozkan, & Farrington, 2017 ). As such, a sizable literature highlights the impact of schools and education on crime and criminal justice outcomes. Under the umbrella of life-course criminology, schools have received considerable attention given their potential to influence adolescent’s life trajectories. For instance, educational snags, or negative school experiences such as poor educational performance, lack of school attendance, and permanent disciplinary records, have been associated with lower levels of academic achievement, occupation stability, and economic mobility as well as amplified levels of juvenile delinquency, adult criminality, criminal justice contact, and incarceration ( Bersani & Chappie, 2007 ; Elder, 1998 ; Hagan, MacMillan, & Wheaton, 1996 ; Jimerson, 1999 ; Moffitt, 1993 ; Pettit & Western, 2004 ; Laub & Sampson, 2003 ; Thornberry, Moore, & Christenson, 1985 ). These results indicate that school failure can act as a significant negative turning point within the life course of youth ( Bersani & Chappie, 2007 ).

More recently, schools have become sites of intense examination given concerns over the negative consequences associated with intensified disciplinary assemblages (see Heitzeg, 2009 ). National reports and scholarly efforts consistently find that criminal justice–based mechanisms (i.e., surveillance systems, school resource officers, metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs, and notification systems) have become commonplace within the school environment ( Casella, 2006 ; Kupchik, 2010 ; Musu-Gillette et al., 2018 ; Nolan, 2011 ). Further, evidence suggests that more punitive sanctions associated with zero tolerance policies have structured schools’ responses to minor forms of student misconduct ( Advancement Project, 2000 ; American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008 ; Curran, 2016 ; Curtis, 2014 ; Noltemeyer, Ward, & Mcloughlin, 2015 ; Phaneuf, 2009 ; Skiba & Peterson, 2000 ). More pertinent to this study, the escalation of exclusionary practices—such as in- and out-of-school suspensions and expulsions—have been shown to negatively impact the future outcomes of youth.

In perhaps the most recent systematic and comprehensive review on the subject, Welsh and Little (2018 , p. 316) synthesize the existing evidence on how punitive school punishment practices affect students’ educational and life outcomes. In their review of 71 peer-reviewed articles published between 1990 and 2018, findings suggest that school suspensions are the most common form of punitive punishment used in schools across the United States ( Welsh & Little, 2018 , p. 335). When examining outcomes associated with exclusionary discipline, Welsh and Little (2018 , p. 321) largely find that exclusionary practices are not only negatively related to short-term educational outcomes but also to more long-term life outcomes. More specifically, their review overwhelmingly indicates that current disciplinary trends are strongly tied to diminished educational achievements, lower scores on standardized tests, diminished graduation rates, decreased school attendance, and lower rates of educational matriculation. Further, exclusionary discipline has been found to be positively associated with higher dropout rates, greater levels of grade retention, missed instructional time, and delays in graduation. Perhaps more instructive to the current study, Welsh and Little’s (2018) review also highlights that sanctioned youth experience increased levels of contact with juvenile justice and arrest. Despite these amassed findings, Welsh and Little (2018 , p. 335) conclude by stating that most research lacks a theoretical framework when interpreting disciplinary pathways leading to negative outcomes and therefore undertheorize the influence of school discipline. We echo Welsh and Little’s (2018) conclusion and, therefore, turn now to a discussion of school discipline from a life-course perspective.

The Life-Course Perspective on School Discipline

The life-course perspective posits that pivotal life experiences can serve as turning points and transitions that alter one’s life trajectory toward or away from crime as they move into and through adulthood ( Elder, 1985 ; Farrington, 2003 ; Laub & Sampson, 1993 ; Sampson & Laub, 2003). Perhaps more importantly, these experiences have the ability to knife off ( Moffitt, 1993 ) important opportunity structures and produce a cumulative effect ( Sampson & Laub, 1997 ), compounding on one another as they shape criminal pathways. As we discuss below, a number of studies reveal that school suspensions may contribute to antisocial outcomes as youth progress through school, and emerging research has highlighted that school suspensions can function as a short-term turning point toward antisocial developmental outcomes.

At least two recent studies have conceptualized school discipline within the life-course context. For example, Mowen and Brent (2016) found that school suspensions increase odds of arrest and suggest that school discipline can function as a negative turning point that increases contact with the criminal justice system. In a follow-up study, Mowen, Brent, and Boman (2019) examined the effect of school suspensions on offending behaviors using four waves of data from the NLSY97. The authors found that school suspensions actually increased offending behaviors among youth who experienced school punishment. At the same time, the authors highlight an important limitation to their study, noting that although their findings demonstrate school suspensions are an important life event for youth in the short term, their results do not speak to longer term outcomes ( Mowen et al., 2019 ).

Other studies have also considered how school suspensions may contribute to antisocial outcomes among adolescents. Although not specifically applying life-course theory, in an analysis of data encompassing 4,665 13- to 17-year-old youth in an urban school district, Cuellar and Markowitz (2015) found that youth who received a school suspension were far more likely to report increases in offending behaviors than youth who were not suspended. As a result, suspended youth were also more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system (e.g., arrest and incarceration). This finding supports the life-course notion that school suspensions may function as a turning point toward increased contact with the criminal justice system. In a related vein, Rosenbaum (2018) used propensity score matching to examine outcomes for 480 youth matched to 1,193 emerging adults. Findings revealed that youth who were suspended were less likely than youth who were not suspended to have graduated high school and were more likely to be arrested or on probation. Similarly, using the Add-Health data, Wolf and Kupchik (2017) show that suspended youth reported much greater levels of offending than nonsuspended youth in emerging adulthood. These latter two studies further demonstrate that school suspensions may serve as a turning point as youth progress through school.

Overall, the extant research has provided evidence that school suspensions can affect outcomes across time (e.g., Cuellar & Markowitz, 2015 ; Rosenbaum, 2018 ; Wolf & Kupchik, 2017 ), and emerging research has conceptualized school discipline as a key turning point toward short-term antisocial outcomes (e.g., Mowen & Brent, 2016 ). Yet, drawing upon the life-course perspective, a key question that remains unanswered is how school suspensions function to influence longer term outcomes. Given the widespread use of the school-to-prison pipeline ( Crawley & Hirschfield, 2018 ), the lack of scientific scrutiny on the link between suspension and incarceration across ones’ life course is a startling limitation particularly given the acknowledgment within these extant studies that school discipline is both theoretical and empirically a turning point for adolescents.

Part of the limitation to existing studies is the reliance on only two waves of data (e.g., Rosenbaum, 2018 ; Wolf & Kupchik, 2017 ) or focusing exclusively on data during the time frame in which the majority of youth are enrolled in school (e.g., Mowen & Brent, 2016 ; Mowen et al., 2019 ). Yet, the school-to-prison pipeline describes a process of many years whereby youth are placed at a greater risk of incarceration even as they move into, and through, young adulthood. Thus, research is needed that situates exclusionary discipline within the life-course framework to examine its impact on trajectories as men and women move into adulthood while simultaneously documenting the specific mechanisms that drive this pipeline. This need raises attention to the goals of the current study.

Current Study

The primary aim of the current study is to examine how school suspensions experienced in middle and high school relate to incarceration as youth transition into young adulthood. To accomplish this, we establish three goals to guide the present investigation. The first goal of this study is to broadly examine the relationship between school suspension and incarceration during young adulthood. Specifically, we examine how the share of men and women who are incarcerated during their young adult years differs for those who were suspended during middle or high school compared to those who never experienced a suspension. Based on the negative outcomes associated with school punishments, we predict that:

Hypothesis 1: The share of individuals who experience incarceration during young adulthood will be greater for those who were suspended at least once in middle or high school than for those who were never suspended.

Next, we investigate the school-to-prison pipeline by moving into the multivariate framework to examine the extent to which suspension functions as turning point toward incarceration over time, net the effect of key covariates such as offending and race/ethnicity. Largely reflecting the literature reviewed above, we expect that:

Hypothesis 2: Young adults who experienced a suspension during grades 7 through 12 will be placed at significantly higher odds of incarceration, even after accounting for levels of delinquency and offending.

Finally, drawing from the concept of cumulative disadvantage, we then focus only on those who reported receiving a suspension to examine the extent to which the total number of suspensions received relates to incarceration throughout young adulthood. Within this subgroup, we expect that:

Hypothesis 3: A greater number of suspensions will relate to increasingly greater odds of incarceration across time, thus demonstrating a cumulative effect of suspension on incarceration.

Data and Methods

To explore the relationship between school suspension and incarceration, we use the first 15 rounds of the NLSY97. Sponsored by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the NLSY97 collects information on a variety of topics including the educational and employment outcomes of adolescents as they transitioned into adulthood. The initial sample consisted of 6,748 nationally representative respondents who were between the ages of 12 and 16 in 1997 (born between 1980 and 1984), as well as an oversample of 2,236 Black and Hispanic adolescents, resulting in an initial sample size of 8,984 respondents. Yearly interviews were conducted for the first 15 rounds (1997–2011), with the survey switching to a biennial design after 2011. Although the NLSY97 suffers from some attrition, more than 80% of the original sample is retained during the first 15 rounds of the survey. The NLSY97’s longitudinal nature allows us to observe and control for the within- and between-person characteristics and experiences throughout respondent’s teenage years and as they transition into adulthood. Being able to observe such indicators is crucial when studying the transition from adolescence to adulthood as one’s characteristics and experiences in adolescence can lead to varying outcomes in later life ( Elder, 1998 ; Johnson, Crosnoe, & Elder, 2011 ; Macmillan & Hagan, 2004 ).

The data are converted into person-year intervals representing young adults between the ages of 18 and 26. The analyses are restricted to these ages to ensure that young adults have aged out of school and are therefore no longer eligible to be suspended. Within the analyses, this restriction establishes a sequence of events where suspension experiences occurred prior to incarceration.

Dependent Measure: Incarceration

The dependent measure in this study is incarceration. The NLSY97 provides information on respondent’s incarceration status during each wave of the survey. Using this information, we create a time-varying dichotomous measure representing whether the respondents experienced an incarceration during each year from ages 18–26. As shown in Table 1 , about 1.5% of the sample reported being incarcerated at any given wave, though this does significantly vary within individuals across time (within-person standard deviation = 0.092).

Descriptive Statistics for Variables Used in Multivariate Analyses.

Note . TI = time-invariant; TV = time-variant; SD = standard deviation.

Focal Independent Measure: School Suspensions

Suspension experience during the 7th through 12th grades serves as the independent variable. To capture this measure, we draw on data from two questions in the first round of the NLSY97 that asked: “Have you ever been suspended from school?” and “In what grade(s) did this happen?” Similar questions were asked during subsequent rounds: “Were you suspended from school since [the last interview]?” and “In what grades did this happen?” Using responses to these questions, we create two measures of suspension experiences. The first measure represents individuals who were ever suspended during Grades 7 through 12 as a dichotomous measure (1 = ever suspended , 0 = never suspended ). Overall, about 34.5% of the sample reported receiving a suspension sometime during school. The second measure captures the total number of grades in which respondents reported receiving a suspension. Among those who were ever suspended, respondents experienced a suspension in 1.53 grades on average, with a standard deviation of 0.80, and a range from 1 (suspended in one grade) to 6 (suspended in all grades).

Control Measures

Demographic controls..

An array of time-variant and -invariant control measures are included in the multivariate analyses. We begin by including a variety of demographic indicators associated with suspension and incarceration. Age, closely linked to both offending and incarceration, is included as a time-invariant measure. During the first interview, respondents were 14.8 years old on average, with a standard deviation of about 1.44 years and range from 12.17 to 18.25 years. We create a measure representing the square of respondent’s age to capture the nonlinear nature of the age–crime relation ( Hirschi & Gottfredson, 1983 ). 1 The sample is about 49.8% female and 50.2% male. In the analyses, we withhold female as the contrast group. We also include race/ethnicity in the analysis as a series of binary variables. Overall, 25.4% of the sample was coded as Black, and 20.3% Hispanic, in contrast to 54.3% White. Due to a lack of variation in the number of “Other/Mixed” race/ethnic respondents who reported being incarcerated, this group is omitted from the analyses. Finally, to capture the influence of family formation as a turning point, we include measures representing marriage and parenthood. About 16.0% of the sample was married, and respondents reported 0.44 biological children on average, with a standard deviation of about 0.82 and a within-person standard deviation of 0.43.

Criminal and delinquent controls.

Measures that capture delinquency/offending as respondent’s offending should be the most significant predictor of both incarceration and suspension. We draw data from 6 items asking how many times the respondent: (1) carried a gun in the past 30 days, (2) destroyed property, (3) stole something worth more than $50, (4) stole something worth less than $50, (5) attacked or assaulted, and/or (6) sold illegal drugs in the past year. We sum responses to these variables such that greater scores represent larger amounts of delinquent behaviors. This measure has a mean of 7.19, and ranges from 0 ( no offending ) to 1,500 ( a great deal of offending ) with an overall standard deviation of 51.39. As a time-variant measure, delinquency/offending varies across time within persons (within standard deviation = 40.82). We transformed values of this measure using the natural log function to correct for the significant right skew.

In addition to offending, we also make use of a question asking whether respondents had been members of a gang during the first nine rounds of the survey. Responses are dichotomized to represent gang participation as an adolescent, with about 8.8% of respondents reporting gang participation and a standard deviation of 0.28. Peer gang participation is also captured and established through a question asking the percentage of the respondent’s peers who were part of a gang in 1997 (1 = almost none , 2 = about 25% , 3 = about half , 4 = about 75% , 5 = almost all ). Responses averaged 1.58, with a standard deviation of 0.97, suggesting that on average less than 25% of respondent’s peers were in a gang. Finally, a measure of peer delinquency is based on five measures indicating the share of respondent’s peers who smoked, drank alcohol, used illegal drugs, skipped school, and had sex in 1997 (1 = almost none , 2 = about 25% , 3 = about half , 4 = about 75% , 5 = almost all ). Responses are averaged and produce a mean of 2.35 with a standard deviation of 1.06.

Socioeconomic controls.

Socioeconomic controls are represented as educational attainment, household income, and mother’s educational attainment. Twenty-two percent of the sample reported less than a high school education, about one third reported high school and some college education (32.8% and 30.6%, respectively), and about 14.5% had a bachelor’s degree or more. The respondent’s total family income (in 1997 dollars) has a mean of $46,697, standard deviation of $49,561, and ranges from $0 to $417,074 a year. The modal educational attainment for respondent’s mothers is a high school degree (35.8% of the sample), whereas about 23.0% of respondents had mothers with less than a high school education, 23.5% had mothers with some college experience, and 17.8% had mothers with a bachelor’s degree or more.

Contextual controls.

Finally, a set of contextual controls are added to account for factors related to the respondent’s environment that may contribute to the odds of suspension and/or incarceration. To account for higher rates incarceration in the South ( Carson, 2018 ), a dichotomous time-varying measure is included representing if respondents lived in a Southern state (the Census definition of the South is used). Slightly less than 40% of the sample lived in the South during the period of observation, with a within-person standard deviation of 0.13 as respondents moved into (or out of) the South. A time-invariant family routines scale capturing how frequently respondents participated in activities with their family in 1997 is also included. The scale ranges from 0 to 28, with higher scores indicating more family routine activities. The average sample score is 15.0 with a standard deviation of 4.28.

In addition to geographic location and family routines, we also include a scale representing bonds to the respondent’s school experiences in 1997. Factor loading was used to identify four school-related questions to create a scale with the following items: whether teachers are good, whether teachers are interested in students, whether students are graded fairly, and whether respondents feel safe at school. Responses to these items included 1 = strongly agree , 2 = agree , 3 = disagree , and 4 = strongly disagree and were reverse coded such that higher scores represent more positive school experiences. The final scale ranges from 4 to 16, with a mean of 12.30 and a standard deviation of 1.96.

Analytic Strategy

To address the research questions presented above, we conduct three analyses. As our first broad aim is to explore the bivariate relationship between suspension and incarceration throughout young adulthood, we first begin by plotting the share of respondents who reported being incarcerated between the ages of 18 and 26 by their suspension experience status. Creating this allows us to gain a visual understanding of the association between suspension and incarceration during young adulthood.

Next, we turn to multivariate analyses to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between school suspension and incarceration across time. Because the NLSY97 data are longitudinal panel data, a model must be used that accounts for this nested design as the data violate the assumption of independence made by ordinary least squares regression. To capture both within-person changes and between-person differences, we use a mixed-effects model ( Rabe-Hesketh & Skrondal, 2012 ). A mixed-effects model nests time within the individual and, through the introduction of a random intercept, accounts for a lack of independence over time. In the case of the NLSY97, time is nested within the individual allowing each case to randomly vary across the 15 waves of data. To address our second research aim and test whether any suspension during middle or high school is associated with incarceration, the first set of longitudinal models uses a dichotomous measure of suspension experience (and an array of controls) to predict incarceration for the entire analytical sample ( n = 7,623).

To address our third research aim, we then focus solely on students who ever received a suspension to examine whether a greater number of suspensions (e.g., being suspended in more grades) is significantly associated with an increased risk of incarceration later in life. Thus, for this final analysis, an interval-level measure of grades suspended is included in the model, and the sample is limited to those who experienced at least one suspension ( n = 2,710). 2

We begin by examining the share of men and women who were incarcerated between ages 18 and 26 by their suspension status ( Figure 1 ). Among those who never experienced a suspension during grades 7 through 12, less than 1% were incarcerated during any given year. The share who experienced an incarceration during each round of the NLSY97 was greater for those who reported at least one suspension. At 18, about 2.5% of the ever suspended sample reported being incarcerated, and this share peaked to 4.5% at age 26. The higher incarceration rates of the ever suspended sample throughout young adulthood provides evidence—at least at the bivariate level—of a positive association between suspension and the odds of experiencing an incarceration. To examine whether this relationship persists when delinquent, socioeconomic, demographic, and contextual characteristics are accounted for, we turn to our mixed-effects models.

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Percentage of respondents who experienced an incarceration, by suspension status.

Table 2 presents the mixed-effects models examining the association between experiencing any suspension during grades 7–12 and the risk of incarceration. To ease interpretation of the generalized multilevel models, we report odds ratios from the multivariate models. Model 1 from Table 2 uses the dichotomous measure of suspension experience as the focal independent variable and the set of demographic controls. We first note that the significant Χ 2 value (915.54, p < .001) indicates the model fits the data well, with about 66.4% of the variability in incarceration occurring within persons across time. Χ 2 values remain significant in subsequent Table 2 models and are not discussed further. Turning to the substantive results, the model demonstrates that experiencing a suspension during grades 7–12 is significantly associated with greater odds of incarceration in young adulthood. Specifically, ever suspended youth report 878% greater logged odds of experiencing an incarceration than youth who were never suspended. Regarding demographic characteristics, the results show that males report higher logged odds of incarceration than females. Black respondents also report higher odds of incarceration than White respondents, while those who are currently married report a 75% reduction in the logged odds of incarceration. Finally, each additional child born is associated with a 49% increase in the logged odds of incarceration, a result likely due to the positive correlation between multipartner fertility and incarceration history ( Carlson & Furstenberg, 2006 ).

Mixed-Effects Regression Models Predicting the Odds of Incarceration.

Note. n = 7,623; OR = Odds Ratio.

Controls for criminal and delinquent behaviors by both the respondent and their peers are introduced in Model 2. The addition of these measures reduces the strength of the association between any suspension experience and incarceration, although ever suspended individuals continue to experience logged odds of incarceration that are 617% greater than their never suspended peers. The Logged Crime Scale control is significantly associated with the odds of incarceration, as a one unit increase in the logged self-reported crime scale increases the logged odds of incarceration by 20%. Gang participation also increases the odds of incarceration during young adulthood by 158%, and a one unit increase on the measure of peer delinquency increases the odds of incarceration by 21%.

Experiencing any suspension during grades 7 through 12 significantly increases the logged odds of incarceration in young adulthood by 288% when socioeconomic and contextual controls are incorporated in the mixed-effects model (Model 3, Table 2 ). Results of the rest of the model echo recent work as Black individuals reported significantly elevated odds of incarceration relative to White individuals, males report higher odds in incarceration relative to females, self-reported crime is positively associated with incarceration, and social class (measured as educational attainment) is negatively related to incarceration.

Table 3 uses mixed-effects modeling to estimate the association between the number of grades in which respondents experienced a suspension and the risk of incarceration in adulthood. To accomplish this task, the models in Table 3 are restricted to only respondents who experienced at least one suspension during grades 7 through 12, and the focal independent variable is an interval-level measure representing the number of grades respondents were suspended. Model 1 includes this measure of suspension and demographic controls. The model fits the data well with a significant Χ 2 value (684.51, p < .001) and about 64.54% of the variability in incarceration occurring within persons across time. Subsequent models in Table 3 also fit the data well as indicated by significant Χ 2 values. Model 1 suggests that each additional grade a suspension was experienced increases the logged odds of incarceration by 34%. Furthermore, men who were suspended at least once experienced 1,329% greater logged odds of incarceration than their female counterparts, Blacks reported 63% greater logged odds of incarceration relative to Whites, married young adults experienced a 68% reduction in the logged odds of incarceration, and each additional biological born increased the odds of incarceration by 37%.

Note. n = 2,710; OR = Odds Ratio.

The number of grades suspended remained significantly associated with the odds of incarceration for ever suspended young adults with the addition of crime and delinquent controls in Model 2. Specifically, each additional grade a respondent was suspended increased the logged odds of incarceration by 26%. Self-reported crime and gang participation as an adolescent also increased the odds of incarceration such that a one unit increase in the Logged Crime Scale heightened the logged odds of incarceration by 14% and adolescent gang participation amplified the logged odds of incarceration by 118%.

When introducing socioeconomic and contextual controls in the final model of Table 3 , the association between the number of grades respondents was suspended and incarceration fails to reach statistical significance. Young adults who experienced any suspension and who did not complete a high school education reported logged odds of incarceration that were 164% greater than ever suspended young adults with a high school education. Those with at least some college experience, on the other hand, experienced a 53% reduction in the logged odds of incarceration than their high school educated peers and young adults whose mother had a college degree reported 44% lower odds of incarceration than those whose mothers had a high school education.

In additional analyses ( Appendix ), we compare versions of Model 3 from Table 3 with and without the measure of respondent’s educational attainment and find that education mediated away the significant relationship between number of suspensions and incarceration. This finding suggests that the positive and significant effect of repeated school suspension on incarceration are driven largely due to failure to graduate high school.

Discussion and Conclusion

Through the lens of the life-course perspective ( Elder, 1985 ; Farrington, 2003 ; Laub & Sampson, 1993 ; Sampson & Laub, 2003), and situated alongside research investigating exclusionary school discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline metaphor ( Wald & Losen, 2003 ; see also Crawley & Hirschfield, 2018 ; Hirschfield, 2018b ; Mowen & Brent, 2016 ; Schollenberger, 2015 ; Rosenbaum, 2018 ), this study sought to examine the empirical relationship between school suspensions in adolescence and incarceration during young adulthood. Leveraging 15 waves of data from the NLSY97, results of mixed-effects models, overall, demonstrated a significant positive relationship between school suspensions experienced during adolescence and the odds of later imprisonment, net the effect of key controls such as levels of crime and delinquency. The following section discusses results from the study, outlines their contributions to the school discipline/life-course literature, and proposes policy implications for recent trends in school discipline and punishment.

Our first broad aim of the study was to examine the relationship between suspension and incarceration across time at the bivariate level. Mirroring prior work (e.g., Losen & Martinez, 2013 ; Shollenberger, 2015 ), results of a time-series plot demonstrated a strong link between suspension experience and incarceration between the ages of 18 and 26, supporting our first hypothesis. However, it is possible that this bivariate relationship could be due to selection. That is, suspended youth may be more delinquent as youth (and thus, suspended) and criminal into adulthood (and therefore, incarcerated). To account for this effect, we then moved into the multivariate context and hypothesized (Hypothesis 2) that having experienced a suspension between grades 7 and 12 would be positively associated with the odds of incarceration even after accounting for key covariates including levels of offending. Results from mixed-effects regression model found support for this second hypothesis. Specifically, our findings demonstrated that youth who experienced a suspension between grades 7 and 12 experienced significantly higher odds of incarceration as young adults, relative to youth who were never suspended. When placed within the life-course framework, this finding strongly suggests that school suspensions serve as a negative turning point that places youth at much greater risk of experiencing incarceration as they transition to adulthood. In short, this finding supports the notion of a school-to-prison pipeline whereby youth who experience exclusionary punishment in school are, in fact, put at significant risk of incarceration ( Crawley & Hirschfield, 2018 ).

Finally, and largely drawing from the concept of cumulative disadvantage ( Sampson & Laub, 1997 ), we then focused our analysis on only youth who reported receiving at least one suspension and hypothesized that a greater number of suspensions would relate to increasingly greater odds of incarceration. This third hypothesis was not supported suggesting that the frequency of suspension does matter as much as the difference between no suspension and at least one suspension. Thus, in our primary analysis, we find no evidence that repeated suspension experiences confer cumulative disadvantage. Because this finding stands in stark contrast to our life-course-informed theoretical expectations based on the concept of cumulative disadvantage, we engaged in a supplemental analysis which we turn to now.

To unpack this unexpected finding in greater detail, we examined whether this cumulative effect was partially mediated by school attainment. This subsequent analysis, shown in Appendix , demonstrated that educational attainment did, in fact, partially mediate the relationship between the number of suspensions experienced and odds of incarceration. When placed within the life-course framework, this finding suggests that school suspensions may present cumulative disadvantage to students who do not complete high school. In this manner, the cumulative effect of suspensions on incarceration exists among students who fail to graduate high school. Although our analysis demonstrates that school suspensions do not directly present cumulative disadvantage to adolescents as they age, we find support for the notion that school suspensions may indirectly promote incarceration across time through educational attainment. This finding becomes more salient considering that school suspensions have been identified as a key factor in students failing to graduate from high school ( Crawley & Hirshfield, 2018 ). Though studies should aim to unpack this finding further, this result echoes Caspi (1987) and Sampson and Laub’s (1997) concepts of cumulative continuity and cumulative disadvantage. From this vantage point, experiencing exclusionary school sanctions may encourage additional negative outcomes—such as failure to complete high school—that progressively build on one another as they mortgage future conventional opportunities and reinforce life trajectories heading toward imprisonment ( Sampson & Laub, 1997 ). Taken together, our results suggest that the effect of suspension on incarceration may be partially mediated by educational attrition highlighting the need for future research to explore additional mediating mechanisms through which the school-to-prison pipeline may operate.

Overall, within the life-course literature, educational snags in the form of missed educational time, grade retention, and dropping out are linked to a host of adverse consequences for youth as they move into and through adulthood ( Bersani & Chappie, 2007 ; Elder, 1998 ; Hagan et al., 1996 ; Jimerson, 1999 ; Moffitt, 1993 ; Pettit & Western, 2004 ; Sampson & Laub, 2003; Thornberry et al., 1985 ). Mounting research is converging on the idea that current punitive disciplinary strategies not only increase the likelihood of these snags but—perhaps more importantly—serve as antisocial turning points themselves ( Mowen & Brent, 2016 ). However, research in this area has been limited to examining how exclusionary discipline impacts short-term effects on youths’ academic and personal outcomes including arrest and juvenile justice contact (see Mowen & Brent, 2016 ; Welsh & Little, 2018 ). This study extends prior scholarship by locating school discipline within the longer life course process by showing that suspensions—a disciplinary mechanism within a larger assemblage of punitive punishment practices—function as a negative turning point increasing the odds of incarceration as an adult.

Certainly, these results stack alongside others challenging the effectiveness of exclusionary punishment practices in their current form (see Welsh & Little, 2018 ). From a policy standpoint, these findings bolster recent calls for disciplinary reform, alternative strategies, and remedial practices ( American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008 ; Gregory et al., 2016 ; Hirschfield, 2018b ). Perhaps the most commonly cited includes the behavioral management system known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. This approach seeks to enhance schools’ response to student misconduct and the school climate through the use of effective, efficient, and equitable practices (see Sugai & Horner, 2002 ). Restorative justice principles have also been proposed which would address the damages and needs of all parties involved to remedy harms, address underlying issues, and prevent future misconduct ( González, Sattler, & Buth, 2018 ; Zehr, 2015 ). Others have outlined specific changes to how schools respond to student misconduct; these recommendations include supporting educators though professional training, ongoing data collection and analysis, collaborating with communities, working with families, and increasing the presence of mental health supports ( Kupchik & Catlaw, 2015 ; Skiba & Losen, 2015 ; Winkler, Walsh, de Blois, Maré, & Carvajal, 2017 ). While each strategy addresses the immediate outcomes of school discipline, it is likely they will also curb the findings here. However, it is important to note that there are likely to be ideological, financial, personnel, political, and institutional barriers that hinder such reform initiatives ( Brent, 2019 ; Lohrmann, Forman, Martin, & Palmieri, 2008 ).

Outside of the contributions of this research, there are several notable limitations. First is that the results presented under this study are limited to a sample of men and women who were born between 1980 and 1984 and attended school during the late 1990s. As a result, the associations identified in the current study may differ for more recent generations of young men and women. Specifically, the positive relationship between suspension and incarceration may be stronger among current cohorts of students as schools have continued to expand techniques intended to capture and punish delinquent behaviors. Whether this association is stronger for contemporary cohorts should be explored by subsequent literature. Second is that the data only examine respondents into early adulthood. Future work should explore whether school suspension continues to be associated with greater odds of incarceration as men and women age through their adult lives.

Third, the Logged Crime Scale used in the multivariate analyses does not completely account for the possibility of spuriousness within the documented relationship between suspension and incarceration. Preexisting behaviors or disorders that were not captured could increase the odds of both suspension and incarceration. Finally, we note the measure representing respondents’ race/ethnicity is limited in that Hispanic ethnicity and indicators of race are combined into mutually exclusive categories. We are therefore unable to distinguish respondents who identify as both Hispanic ethnicity and as members of a particular racial group. Likewise, we do not explore the relationship between suspension and incarceration for race and ethnic groups beyond White, Blacks, and Hispanics due to an insufficient sample size of other race/ethnic group members. This is problematic given the high suspension rates experienced by some minority groups such as Native Americans ( U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014 ). Future research should test whether school sanctions are associated with greater odds of criminal justice contact for members of minority racial and ethnic groups who are not captured in this study.

An important contribution the present study offers to the literature on school sanctions as a turning point is the lasting influence that suspensions can have throughout young adulthood. However, we do not explore the specific mechanisms by which suspensions are positively associated with incarceration. Studies using much smaller time frames of the NLSY97 have shown that school suspensions can promote offending ( Mowen et al., 2019 ). Although we account for offending, with the limitation in this measure above, it could be that school suspensions promote offending far beyond adolescence, and future research should examine this possibility. Wiley, Slocum, and Esbensen (2013) suggest, for example, that school discipline could also introduce teenagers to the criminal justice system through the growing presence of school resource officers. An understanding of the exact mechanisms by which suspended youth are more likely to experience contact with the criminal justice system would provide researchers and policy makers with a better understanding of ways to implement school sanctions that act as less of a negative turning point in the lives of young men and women.

Overall, this study builds on work documenting the negative effects associated with school discipline by situating their effects within youths’ life course. Although existing studies have highlighted that school discipline may function as a turning point toward short-term antisocial life outcomes such as arrest (e.g., Mowen & Brent, 2016 ), this study uncovers that suspensions may incite adverse long-term outcomes extending into adulthood. When interpreted through the life-course perspective, these findings suggest that suspensions may serve as important antisocial turning points that reshape trajectories and usher youth toward incarceration later in life. This study also provides empirical evidence documenting the widely employed school-to-prison pipeline metaphor used within the literature. In a similar vein, findings uncover that suspensions serve as a significant disciplinary conduit within schools through which the school-to-prison pipeline operates.


The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This research was supported in part by the Center for Family and Demographic Research, Bowling Green State University, which has core funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (P2CHD050959).

Author Biographies

Paul Hemez’s research interests focus on the influence of youth and young adult experiences on later life outcomes.

John J. Brent’s interests focus on the cultural and structural dynamics of crime and crime control, how institutions create and perpetuate inequalities, building a theoretical foundation for criminal justice theory, and how individuals are disciplined and punished. Among other projects, his recent work includes a series of publications examining the intersections of institutional discipline and punishment, cultural dispositions, and inequality.

Thomas J. Mowen’s research explores the impact of punishment on families and youth. His recent work has appeared in Criminology, Justice Quarterly, and Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.

Role of Educational Attainment on Relationship Between Number of Grades Suspended and Odds of Incarceration.

Note. n = 2,710. OR = Odds Ratio. Educational attainment categories “some college” and “bachelor’s degree or more” collapsed due to small cell sizes.

1 Similar conclusions are drawn from multivariate analyses when a linear or quadratic term is used to model age.

2 We performed an attrition analysis to examine how missing data affected the results of the study. Results of a series of t tests ( n ot shown, but available) demonstrated no significant patterns of sample attrition, suggesting that patterns of missing data are missing at random.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

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School-to-prison-pipeline: the factors that cause it, and how we can prevent it.

Alison L. Wittig , Humboldt State University Follow

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Master of Arts degree with a major in Education

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Dr. David Ellerd

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HSU Faculty or Staff

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Dr. Eric Van Duzer

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The “School-to-Prison pipeline” is an ongoing challenge and trend in the public school system in America due to inequity in the educational system, discriminatory policies towards students and families of color, and a lack of resources aimed at supporting at-risk youth and the economically disadvantaged within the community. Public schools have made continued progress in shifting their disciplinary policies away from punitive, “zero tolerance” models and towards positive behavioral interventions, but there continues to be a disproportionate number of students ending up in the school-to-prison-pipeline from economically disadvantaged communities and homes. Lawmakers continue to create policies in an effort to make schools safer and more efficient, but do not consider the detriment and alienation this impact has on the students or families within the community, and potential harmful affects these policies could have on children’s futures. A qualitative survey was conducted at a public, continuation high school in the San Francisco Unified School District with staff members over the age of 18, to determine whether or not the school-to-prison-pipeline is still a challenge our educational system is facing, and whether or not there are adequate supports or measures in place to support students and keep them in school. Results from this survey suggest that there continues to be an increasing number of students pushed into the school-to-prison-pipeline and a system that is unable to support students in the comprehensive high school setting, which leaves them with limited skill sets and restricted options when it comes to their futures. Based on the findings, the recommendation is that districts incorporate work experience programs to incentivize students to stay in school, while also helping to support their socioeconomic need to help support their families, in a meaningful and productive way. In addition, districts should explore community-based programs to help support and educate families in addressing concerns such as trauma, community violence, and unstable home environments that continue to prove a detriment to student’s ability to perform in school, and consequentially plague students overall well being.

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Wittig, Alison L., "School-to-prison-pipeline: the factors that cause it, and how we can prevent it" (2017). Cal Poly Humboldt theses and projects . 109. https://digitalcommons.humboldt.edu/etd/109

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Article contents

Examining the school-to-prison pipeline metaphor.

  • Kayla Crawley Kayla Crawley Department of Sociology, Rutgers University
  •  and  Paul Hirschfield Paul Hirschfield Department of Sociology, Rutgers University
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264079.013.346
  • Published online: 25 June 2018

The school-to-prison pipeline (STPP) is a commonly used metaphor that was developed to describe the many ways in which schools have become a conduit to the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The STPP metaphor encompasses various disciplinary policies and practices that label students as troublemakers, exclude students from school, and increase their likelihood of involvement in delinquency, juvenile justice, and subsequent incarceration. Many external forces promote these policies and practices, including high-stakes testing, harsh justice system practices and penal policies, and federal laws that promote the referral of certain school offenses to law enforcement. Empirical research confirms some of the pathways posited by STPP. For example, research has shown that out-of-school suspensions predict school dropout, justice system involvement and adult incarceration. However, research on some of the posited links, such as the impact of school-based arrests and referrals to court on school dropout, is lacking.

Despite gaps in the empirical literature and some theoretical shortcomings, the term has gained widespread acceptance in both academic and political circles. A conference held at Northeastern University in 2003 yielded the first published use of the phrase. Soon, it attained widespread prominence, as various media outlets as well as civil rights and education organizations (e.g., ACLU, the Advancement Project (they also use “schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track”), the National Education Association (NEA), and the American Federation of Teachers) referenced the term in their initiatives. More recently, the Obama administration used the phrase in their federal school disciplinary reform efforts. Despite its widespread use, the utility of STPP as a social scientific concept and model is open for debate.

Whereas some social scientists and activists have employed STPP to highlight how even non-criminal justice institutions can contribute to over-incarceration, other scholars are critical of the concept. Some scholars feel that the pipeline metaphor is too narrow and posits an overly purposeful or mechanistic link between schools and prisons; in fact, there is a much more complicated relationship that includes multiple stakeholders that fail our nation’s youth. Rather than viewing school policies and practices in isolation, critical scholars have argued that school processes of criminalization and exclusion are inextricably linked to poverty, unemployment, and the weaknesses of the child welfare and mental health systems. In short, the metaphor does not properly capture the web of institutional forces and missed opportunities that can push youth toward harmful choices and circumstances, often resulting in incarceration. Many reforms across the nation seek to dismantle STPP, including non-exclusionary discipline alternatives such as restorative justice and limiting the role of school police officers. Rigorous research on their effectiveness is needed.

  • school discipline
  • education policy
  • school-to-prison pipeline
  • juvenile justice
  • school police

Pipeline Concept

Schools and the criminal justice system intersect in multiple, complex ways. The notion of a “school-to prison pipeline” directs attention to particular social processes and aspects of the interrelationship between schools and the criminal justice system. Some studies have traced the development of the metaphor in academic research, policy, and advocacy circles (Skiba, 2014 ; McGrew, 2016 ). The following themes have emerged:

First, the school-to-prison pipeline operates primarily through school exclusion, which encompasses suspensions, expulsion, and disciplinary transfers and often entails the rigid application of “zero tolerance” disciplinary codes (Skiba, 2014 ). Second, the metaphor also highlights particular negative consequences of exclusionary discipline (suspension and expulsion), such as elevated contact with the justice system (Skiba, 2014 ). Third, these consequences are disproportionately levied on minority and low-income populations (Skiba et al., 2002 ), with poor students more likely to experience aspects of criminalized school discipline (e.g., suspensions, police, metal detectors) during elementary school (Kupchik & Ward, 2014 ). Fourth, some scholars have extended the pipeline notion beyond the movement of student bodies from schools to prison to encompass the physical similarities of schools and prisons, the use of criminal justice tools such as metal detectors and surveillance technology, and the increased importation of police officers into schools (Hirschfield, 2008 ; Meiners, 2010 ), all of which helped redefine troubled children as potential lawbreakers (Simon, 2007 ).

A well-known report on school discipline in Texas public schools, Breaking Schools’ Rules (Fabelo et al., 2011 ), sharpened the conceptualization of STPP and facilitated its empirical assessment by distinguishing “direct” and “indirect” causes of student involvement with the criminal justice system. Direct causes include schools’ use of criminal justice personnel and their propensity to classify school misconduct as criminal behavior. This can include writing students misdemeanor citations and juvenile court referrals for minor infractions. Disciplinary mechanisms such as suspension and expulsion are indirect causes, as exclusion from school creates more opportunities for involvement in illegal activity and exposure to discriminatory policing practices.

Political Backdrop

The era of harsh discipline in schools expanded following the student rights movement and deindustrialization. Some contend that the student rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s empowered students to openly defy teachers and school administrators (Arum, 2005 ). To toughen discipline while reducing vulnerability to accusations of bias, key education stakeholders formalized disciplinary procedures (Hirschfield, 2008 ; Sojoyner, 2013 ). School disciplinary harshening has also been tied to broader political and economic shifts. The “governing-through-crime” framework (Simon, 2007 ) contends that de-industrialization and a national economic squeeze tempered the redistributive ambitions of federal government, requiring new criteria for government success and legitimacy. As a result, the control and punishment of crime became a more viable mission of governance. This framework will be discussed in greater detail in a later section.

Over time, especially after the Gun Free Schools Act was enacted in 1994 , schools’ methods for handling rule violations and problematic behavior became more exclusionary and dependent on law enforcement (Curran, 2016 ). Other scholars have highlighted more proximate influences on STPP. For example, “moral panic” explanations depict the increasing severity of school discipline as a disproportionate response to the increase in school violence and the media’s “crisis narrative” in the 1980s and 1990s (Burns & Crawford, 1999 ). A more detailed discussion of the theoretical and historical underpinnings of the school-to-prison pipeline will appear later.

Timeline of Use

The STPP metaphor has gained widespread acceptance as a slogan that critically depicts the relationship between schools and the criminal justice system. The term “pipeline” was first used within education in 1960 by Elliot Berg to describe the successful movement of students through their educational journeys in school (McGrew, 2016 ). Only in the late 1990s did scholars begin using the term to describe the flow of youth from schools into the justice system via exclusionary policies and practices (Costenbader & Markson, 1998 ). Various disciplines including criminology, sociology, psychology, education, legal studies, etc., along with civil rights advocates, focused on the link between school discipline, school failure, and the increasing numbers of youth entering the criminal justice system.

In 2000 , the Harvard Civil Rights Project and the Advancement Project teamed up to produce a national report, Opportunities Suspended , on the massive scale and consequences of zero-tolerance discipline in schools. The report documented how “zero tolerance” had been expanded to minor infractions, disproportionately pushing minority students into the criminal justice system. Although the report did not use the “school-to-prison pipeline” metaphor, it documented some of its key elements.

Scholars trace the origin of the school-to-prison pipeline metaphor to a conference held in May of 2003 at Northeastern University entitled, “Reconstructing the School to Prison Pipeline: Charting Intervention Strategies of Prevention and Support for Minority Children” (McGrew, 2016 ). The goal of the conference was to “commission research that will explore how school policies and practices may be affecting the flow of certain students into the criminal justice system.” 1 One of the most referenced pieces from the conference proceedings, “Deconstructing the Prison Pipeline” (Wald & Losen, 2003 ), has shaped the discourse surrounding this issue (Soyjoyner, 2013 ). This article focused on the background influences of the model, as well as some explanations of the model that are still heavily discussed in the literature, including the exclusionary nature of high-stakes testing, zero-tolerance disciplinary practices, and the nexus between the racial disproportionality in punishment within schools and the criminal justice system, all of which were exacerbated by the fiscal crises facing most states. This conference launched the term and gave it legitimacy.

Following the conference, direct media references to STPP and its attendant social processes dramatically increased. Concurrently, various social justice organizations prioritized confronting the STPP (McGrew, 2016 ). For example, in November of 2008 , the ACLU released a report called “Dignity Denied: The Effect of ‘Zero Tolerance’ Policies on Students’ Human Rights.” 2 The report examined how the merger of educational and criminal justice processes strips students, especially students of color, of their rights to an education. The organization offered recommendations for school disciplinary procedures that protect students’ civil and human rights. The ACLU has also directly intervened to protect vulnerable students from the prison pipeline, filing numerous cases against school districts for violations of students’ rights in incidents involving school discipline. A prime example is their 2006 class action lawsuit against the Winner School District in South Dakota for levying disproportionate sanctions against Native American students (see Antoine et al. v. Winner School District ).

Ultimately, the metaphor gained mainstream acceptance from the highest officials in the federal government and the most powerful educational associations in the country. The secretary of education and the U.S. attorney general used the phrase to launch the Obama administration’s school disciplinary reform efforts to “Rethink Discipline” in 2011 and continued to use it for all public announcements on related federal policy initiatives. 3 It was even included in President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union speech (McGrew, 2016 ). Additionally, leading educational associations featured the metaphor in their Framework for Safe and Successful Schools report (Cowan et al., 2013 ). The metaphor remains prominent in state and federal political discourse and continues to galvanize research, advocacy, and policy reform.


Utility of the metaphor.

One of the clear benefits of the STPP metaphor is its ability to raise awareness and alarm. The slogan “school-to-prison pipeline” provides jarring visual imagery and a simple narrative. The term resonated with both journalists seeking a sensational angle and advocacy organizations pushing for change in school discipline policy.

As mentioned, in 2011 Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder launched the Supportive School Discipline Initiative. The official press release states that the collaborative initiative addresses the “‘school-to-prison pipeline’ and the disciplinary policies that can push students out of school and into the justice system.” 4 The use of this term signals that the metaphor was already well established in political discourse as government leaders began to take on school discipline as a focal issue. Following this announcement, in December of 2012 , the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights held hearings, which were anchored to the pipeline metaphor (Kupchik, 2014 ).

The metaphor joins together multiple processes within schools and criminal justice under a single system. This conceptual integration helps galvanize and legitimize coalitions of stakeholders across institutional domains that seek to reduce exclusionary and criminalizing practices and expand disciplinary alternatives such as school-based restorative justice (Hernandez & Lance, 2016 ). The STPP model highlights the processes that produce parallel racial inequalities across social settings. The expanded definition of what qualifies as illegal school misconduct, as well as the growing prominence of law enforcement within education increase the concordance between schools and criminal justice. The pipeline framework emphasizes the negative impact of exclusionary discipline and school-based criminal justice interactions. Through this lens, exclusionary school policies and practices seem to prepare youth for an adulthood marked by a heavy police presence and diminished civil rights (Foucault, 1979 ; Kupchik, 2014 ).

Critiques of the Metaphor

Despite STPP’s strong political, social justice and advocacy benefits, the academic utility of the metaphor is less clear (Hirschfield, 2012 ; McGrew, 2016 ). Scholars have asserted that the STPP metaphor lacks theoretical elucidation (McGrew, 2016 ) and complexity (Kupchik, 2014 ; Hirschfield, 2012 ). Theories of resistance, social reproduction, as well as political economy tend to be conspicuously absent from, or improperly situated within, the school-to-prison pipeline literature (McGrew, 2016 ). In addition, pipeline proponents often fail to confirm the theoretical validity of the pipeline and use it as a stand-in for theory itself (McGrew, 2016 ). Aside from inadequate theoretical grounding, some aspects of the model risk calling too much policy attention to some factors and too little to others. First, the connection between schools and prisons is much more indirect than some images of the STPP convey. Close examination reveals that statements about the role of law enforcement in schools are, in some cases, rhetorically inflated. For example, most students who commit code of conduct infractions at school are not arrested; they are rather penalized through some form of exclusionary discipline like in-school or out-of-school suspension (Fabelo et al., 2011 ; Kupchik, 2014 ). School-based court referrals are common in many jurisdictions, but police in schools rarely provide a direct pathway to incarceration.

Although school-based arrests are infrequently used in some places to address student misconduct problems (Fabelo et al., 2011 ), exclusionary discipline and future criminal justice involvement are strongly correlated (Wald & Losen, 2003 ; Noguera, 2003 ; Skiba, 2014 ; Skiba et. al., 2014 ). However, leading proponents of the metaphor often fail to document exactly how school exclusion facilitates involvement in the criminal justice system. While the school-to-prison pipeline metaphor connotes a direct pathway from school exclusion to prison, there is a much more complicated and intricate relationship that exists between these two entities. Figure 1 depicts the most direct path.

Figure 1. Simplest model of school-to-prison pipeline.

In this figure, school exclusion is highlighted as the sole vehicle that drives juvenile justice involvement. The model fails to elaborate the intermediary steps between school exclusion and justice system involvement. Skiba, Arrendondo, and Williams ( 2014 ) specify such intermediary processes in a second model (see Figure 2 ).

Figure 2. A “More Fully Articulated” model of school-to-prison pipeline.

This expanded model includes other factors such as school climate, achievement, and behavior that influence the outcome of school exclusion. These factors are considered to be additive, compounding the likelihood of involvement in the criminal justice system. An even more detailed pipeline model (see Figure 3 ) has no clear start or end, emphasizing the multidirectional nature of the processes that contribute to justice system involvement over the short and long terms (Hirschfield, 2012 ).

Figure 3. Third model of school-to-prison pipeline. This model is probabilistic, multi-directional and often multi-level.

This model includes multiple experiences that can help forge a pathway to prison. Each factor overlaps and interacts with the others, creating a web of forces that eventuate in incarceration. This model emphasizes the indeterminate nature of the pipeline process. Hirschfield emphasizes macro processes that shape the course to prison, while acknowledging the unique experiences of individual students that include potential diversions or interruptions. Hirschfield’s ( 2012 ) model challenges the uni-directional pipeline visual by explaining that whereas some students are advanced to the next stage of the process, others manage to avoid or delay negative outcomes. Moreover, the same student could enter (and reenter) the process at different stages of his or her life, challenging the determinacy of the pipeline metaphor. Hirschfield also presents an alternate model that depicts success pathways becoming more narrow, precarious, and blocked, leading students to fall through the cracks. Rather than a deliberate channeling of youth through stages of exclusion and criminalization, Hirschfield’s model depicts a probabilistic narrowing of legitimate alternatives to criminal justice involvement. Such alternative models highlight the role of schools alongside systems of child welfare and other social services in shaping the risk of incarceration (Kupchik, 2014 ).

Theoretical Influences

As mentioned previously, one of the common criticisms of the school-to-prison pipeline metaphor is its lack of theoretical development. While STPP is not a theory in itself, numerous theoretical traditions within sociology, criminology, and legal studies could have helped its proponents explain the “construction” and maintenance of the pipeline. Judging from current reviews of the literature, no one has offered a comprehensive and cohesive theory unique to STPP. Instead, multiple theories align with and inform the logic of the pipeline metaphor, with each explaining only some components of the model. Tracing the epistemological origins of the metaphor will hopefully bring greater understanding and context to STPP and its constituent policies and practices.

Mass Incarceration

Theoretical and empirical work on mass incarceration and the so-called prison industrial complex developed alongside the increased salience of the school-to-prison pipeline metaphor (McGrew, 2016 ). The prison industrial complex describes the network of economic and political elites who draw power and wealth from the expansion of prisons. The literature links developments in the political economy (e.g., deindustrialization) with multiple social problems such as school failure, unemployment, and incarceration. Scholars such as Hirschfield articulate how the shift toward over-incarceration had a direct impact on school policy. Many legislators responsible for education policy and funding also have vested interests in an expanding penal system that provides population-based political benefits (e.g., representation), as well as an economic boost to their jurisdiction. Therefore, such legislators have little incentive to direct funds away from prisons into schools (Hirschfield, 2008 ). Criminal justice expansion also leaves states and school districts with fewer resources to spend on effective prevention and curricular reform, making school exclusion and criminalization the most economically viable means to address chronic student misconduct. Lastly, Hirschfield ( 2008 ) points out that the criminal justice expansion afforded schools an army of security consultants ready to help schools address crime and fear while demonstrating allegiance to a “get tough” politics of crime.

Patterns of racial disproportionality provide grounds for another notable comparison between mass incarceration and STPP. Black and Latino males are hyper-criminalized even in non–criminal justice spaces (including schools) in such a way that the control and punishment of black and brown youth has taken precedence over their growth and development (Rios, 2011 ). Similarly, Wacquant highlights the links between multiple “peculiar institutions” (Wacquant, 2000 ) that serve to control African Americans in myriad ways. Much like how Angela Davis suggests that incarceration has become the primary vehicle through which difficult social problems such as addiction and mental illness are addressed (Davis, 1998 ), schools have adopted strategies similar to courts when dealing with challenging behavior in learning environments (Wilson, 2014 ). As Wilson ( 2014 ) denotes specifically, the idea of applying predetermined punishments for specific behavioral offenses is a practice schools have adopted in the era of zero-tolerance discipline that closely mirrors criminal justice procedures. As previous research reviewed in this article has shown, these sorts of practices most acutely impact African American youth and Latino youth (in select contexts). When these policies and practices are codified into law, it is easy for these youths to get entangled in systems that seemingly work together.

Critical Race Theory

The school-to-prison pipeline metaphor borrows ideologically from Critical Race Theory (CRT), the legal studies theory that seeks to explain the ways in which laws, including those regulating education, perpetuate racial inequality without explicitly discriminating. CRT emerged in the 1970s as a movement of scholars and activists who bemoaned the fact that the civil rights era produced only modest, liberal reforms that had limited material impact on most minorities in the United States (Delgado & Stefancic, 2012 ). CRT is variously defined in the literature, but common themes, interests, and principles unite CRT scholars under a common agenda. CRT holds that white supremacy and systems of hierarchy lock communities of color into marginalized positions over time, irrespective of legal reforms (Crenshaw, 1995 ; Bell, 1980 ). According to one of the founders of CRT (Crenshaw, 1995 ), white supremacy is built into our political and legal structure and is therefore resistant to liberal reforms. Structurally embedded racism seems ordinary and natural, as it is now advanced through race-neutral practices.

Within a CRT perspective, races are not consciously targeted for zero-tolerance discipline. Rather, school codes and informal disciplinary mechanisms direct disproportionate penal scrutiny to behaviors that African American and Latino students are either more likely to commit or be perceived as committing (Skiba et al., 2002 ). For example, Skiba, Michael, Nardo, and Peterson ( 2002 ) found that African American and Latino students were more likely to be disciplined for disrespect, talking loudly or minor threats. It is the very existence of vague and expansive categories such as insubordination and willful defiance—an institutional feature—that makes it possible for black and Latino students to be disproportionately swept into the disciplinary process. Some researchers claim that national data show that racial disparities in suspensions reflect racial differences in misbehavior (Wright et al., 2014 ). However, their net “black effect” is likely smaller than that observed in other studies, because their analysis controls for other indicators and sources of racial bias such as percent of black enrollment, parental perceptions of school quality, and early teacher reports of misbehavior—all of which could be infused with racial bias.

CRT helps to explain how seemingly race-neutral practices have racially disparate consequences. According to CRT scholars, while liberal reforms seemingly promote the rights of the marginalized and underserved, they simultaneously legitimize the widespread use of restrictive definitions of merit, fault, and causation (Crenshaw, 1988 ). It is possible that the struggle for dignity and legitimacy was waged with such vigor that anyone who fell outside of a normalized Western standard for behavior and aptitude were deemed undeserving of protection under the law. Rigid school discipline practices can be viewed as examples of these inflexible standards, in which the pursuit of a narrowly defined path to excellence has squeezed out students who fall outside of the set of prescribed cultural norms and learning styles.

Critical Race Theory Applied to Education

Scholarship that applies CRT principles to education helps provide context for the STPP metaphor. In the first published application of CRT to education, Ladson-Billings and Tate ( 1995 ) elucidated how education perpetuates poverty and disadvantage, namely through the coupling of property rights and race. Framing school discipline in the context of property rights within education (i.e., the premise that education belongs to some and not others) illuminates how some students are deemed undeserving of consideration for academic, financial, and cultural realities not conveniently aligned with white cultural norms and furthermore are sanctioned for non-white cultural practices (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995 ; Watts & Erevelles, 2004 ).

Property rights within education also include the right to exclusion (Harris, 1993 ), a primary outcome of zero-tolerance discipline and the main mechanism of STPP. In 2010 , Sullivan and colleagues linked zero-tolerance discipline in Texas to two certain elements of CRT, the permanence of racism and a critique of liberalism. They argue that historically discriminatory ways of thinking about minority youth and violence yield racially disparate outcomes in school discipline. A confluence of additional factors including the spread of gang activity into suburbs, and an increasingly punitive criminal justice system, led to a tightening of school disciplinary procedures over both criminal and non-criminal behaviors. The punitive shift in school discipline was accomplished with ostensibly race-neutral school safety and disciplinary initiatives that, in fact, targeted behaviors and demeanors implicitly associated with race. This system ignores influences on student behavior that may not be the fault of the student, such as economic circumstances and family environment. Elements of critical race theory help to contextualize the racially disproportionate outcomes examined in STPP research.

Governing Through Crime

There are other theoretical links to the STPP metaphor that bring broader understanding to the pipeline metaphor and why these policies and practices exist. Criminalization is a broad term used to describe a range of political and social processes that result in behaviors such as abortion and stalking becoming illegal (Hirschfield, 2008 ). The term also has specific relevance for school discipline. As Hirschfield ( 2008 ) points out, serious crimes on school grounds such as weapons possession and drug offenses are often subject to mandated police referrals. Moreover, the infusion of law enforcement into schools has also resulted in various acts of student misconduct (e.g., minor fights, running in the hallways, insubordination and rudeness, etc.) being redefined as criminal behavior (Fabelo et al., 2011 ).

Some scholars have linked school criminalization to broader political and economic shifts that resulted in the control and punishment of crime becoming a more viable mission of governance than redistributive aims. The government prioritization of crime resulted in a vastly expanded crime control infrastructure. The imperative to govern through crime transformed not only crime policy at the highest levels but also filtered to the local level and to government agencies that were traditionally separate from criminal justice like schools and child welfare. Sustained by a stable criminal justice infrastructure and a crime-fixated media, crime control has become well cemented into America’s social fabric. This approach to governance has seeped into school policies and practices, and crime governance has transformed the general function of education for our communities and the country at large. However, the process of criminalization has not occurred in a monolithic fashion across the country. Rather, school disciplinary and security practices show great variability across schools, districts and states (Hirschfield, 2008 ). Whereas policies that were initially restricted to schools with an actual violence problem expanded to school districts nationwide (Simon, 2007 ), criminalization assumed milder and more flexible forms in whiter and more affluent contexts (Hirschfield, 2008 , 2009 ).

The Safe Schools Act of 1994 5 cemented and nationalized zero-tolerance policies in schools by providing financial incentives for schools to adopt codes that comply with state mandates for the removal of a student from class. 6 This focus lead to further exclusion of students deemed in violation of the new policies. This legislation imposed a number of requirements (e.g., standardized data collection, reporting crimes to police) that made crime more visible and commensurable, and thereby amenable to state regulation (Simon, 2007 ). The next hallmark of federal reform, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 enacted by the Bush administration, punished educational failure, a symbolic mode of governing through crime (Simon, 2007 ). 7 This legislation links educational failure and crime as ills of the American school system that can and should be addressed together, adding to the already well-cemented influence on schools to align with funding pathways that support environments where crimes are identified. This made it more appealing to sweep more forms of student misbehavior under the umbrella of crime or possible crime. The “dangerous schools” provisions also incentivized making the knowledge of crimes on school grounds salient on an organizational level. However, competing evidence suggests that some schools were incentivized to decriminalize their environments in order to stay off the radar of state overseers (National School Safety and Security Services, 2016 ).

These processes are also racialized. Assessing schools on the basis of standardized test scores (along with safety measures) without providing resources to increase students’ enrichment and engagement incentivizes schools to exclude those students who will hurt schools’ “bottom line” (Figlio, 2006 ). Moreover, disciplinary and criminal codes afford enforcement agents considerable discretion in targeting students for exclusion or arrest on the basis of disruptive or disorderly behavior. This dynamic systematically disadvantages poor students of color, especially African Americans, in two ways. First and foremost, these students are much more likely than white students to attend schools that face such exclusionary pressures coupled with more limited resources to pursue non-exclusionary alternatives. Second, as noted previously, in the context of racially diverse schools, cultural biases on the part of predominantly white and middle-class school professionals result in more behaviors of youth of color being perceived and classified as disorderly or disruptive (Shedd, 2015 ). School personnel are more likely to project bleak or criminal adult futures onto black students (Noguera, 2003 ; Rios, 2006 ), which likely contributes to harsher disciplinary outcomes for black students (Hirschfield, 2008 ). Teachers’ anticipatory labeling of students, school administrators, and school police officers may, in turn, influence students’ vision for their own future (Hirschfield, 2008 ; Noguera, 2003 ). The ubiquitous and internalized labeling of urban minority males as criminals is a feature of the “youth control complex” (Rios, 2011 ), the network of community, law enforcement, and teachers that view urban youth as deviant, which steers them away from schools and toward criminal justice (including within school contexts) (Rios, 2011 ). As products of their experiences, these youths form identities around their involvement with the criminal justice system more so than a promising future of opportunity.

These theoretical links illustrate the myriad ways in which schools came to function as a conduit to criminal justice. The pathways are numerous and include political actors who incentivize schools toward criminalization, school personnel whose personal and professional discretion determine which students end up on the track toward juvenile justice involvement through classroom and school exclusion. Students’ choices and self-efficacy are shaped by the external circumstances of a criminalized school, coupled with the realities they may face in their communities.

Empirical Evidence

STPP models specify various pathways through which school experiences promote involvement with the justice system. Empirical research bolsters some of these pathways more than others. Fortunately, exclusionary school discipline, which is typically depicted as the principal engine of the pipeline is the most widely studied. Numerous studies have documented that school suspensions increase the risk of arrest and juvenile justice involvement over the short and long term. The most rigorous study (Cuellar & Markowitz, 2015 ) of short-term effects, echoing the findings of an earlier study (Monahan et al., 2014 ), found that the risk of arrest doubled during suspensions. The effect does not appear to be merely an automatic consequence of more time away from school, because the effect is stronger on weekdays than on weekends. This study provides strong evidence that being suspended on a school day draws more police scrutiny. However, suspensions also increased the risk of felony arrest, which suggests that consistent with labeling (Mowen & Brent, 2016 ) and strain theories (Agnew, 2001 ), suspension may also increase offending behavior.

School officials may increase students’ vulnerability to police scrutiny not only through suspensions but also through transfers to disciplinary alternative schools. Multiple qualitative studies have documented that students at alternative school are subject to enhanced police surveillance on and near school property (Rios, 2011 ; Reck, 2015 ). Enhanced police scrutiny at school, in turn, can also increase the risk of school exclusion (Fisher & Hennessy, 2016 ).

School exclusion may not only elevate delinquency and police scrutiny in the short term, but it may also intensify interactions with the justice system over the longer term through multiple mechanisms. First, school exclusion can be a source of stigmatizing labels, which can attenuate social support and positive influences at home and at school and thereby increase delinquency (Kupchik, 2016 ). Second, these adverse consequences along with school exclusion itself, may affect assessments of “risk” and “compliance” on the part of decision makers within the juvenile justice system. For example, Bishop et al. ( 2010 ) found that arrested youth within a single Iowa county who had school disciplinary problems (detention, suspension) were more likely to be processed formally (versus diversion) even after taking into account prior offenses and the number and severity of current charges. Disciplinary problems also increased the odds of being subject to a formal delinquency petition but only among African Americans. On the other hand, disciplinary problems had no effect on the risk of being adjudicated delinquent or being placed out of the home. Moreover, using the same data set and selection controls, Leiber ( 2013 ) observed that for African American arrestees only, disciplinary problems lowered the risk of pre-adjudicatory detention. Likewise, in multinomial logistic regression models that include controls for juvenile detention, black youth with disciplinary problems were less likely to be placed out of the home versus in “community-based corrections.”

Of course, many youth attend school even after they have been placed on probation or are released on parole. For such youth, additional suspensions or arrests at school can trigger punitive reactions from other institutions, a phenomenon that has been termed “secondary sanctioning” (Liberman et al., 2014 ). For example, in many jurisdictions, a school suspension constitutes a violation of the terms of probation or parole (Kim, Losen, & Hewitt, 2010 ), which can result in secure confinement (see Shepherd, 2016 for one recent example). 8 Although no known empirical studies document that phenomenon, cogent evidence of this direct pathway from school discipline to incarceration comes from a lawsuit filed in 2012 by the U.S. Justice Department against the educational and juvenile justice organizations serving the students of Meridian, Mississippi. The lawsuit alleged that the “[d]efendants in this case collectively help to operate a school-to-prison pipeline whereby” students who broke school rules were arrested: if they were on probation, the students served their suspensions in the juvenile detention center. The lawsuit was successfully settled in 2015 with the defendants agreeing to drastically curtail the practice of incarcerating probationers for school rule violations.

Given that the foregoing processes of secondary sanctioning further marginalize, stigmatize, and criminalize students, it is hardly surprising that longitudinal studies have found that being suspended from school is associated with subsequent arrests or juvenile involvement (Fabelo et al., 2011 ), especially after multiple suspensions (Mowen & Brent, 2016 ). These effects are observed even for students who remain enrolled and even when self-reported offending is taken into account.

The observed effects of school suspensions on police scrutiny, social status and support, and secondary sanctioning likely hold—or are amplified—for school arrests and school-based court referrals. School arrests, a product of enhanced school policing (Nolan, 2011 ; Na & Gottfredson, 2013 ), are likely to impact juvenile justice processing given that they create a police record and often trigger court involvement as well. The apparent absence of scientific studies on the impact of school-based arrests and court referrals represents a gaping hole in the empirical STPP literature.

As mentioned earlier, suspensions and school arrests rarely lead directly to incarceration. However, along with the juvenile justice interactions they facilitate, these punishments can inflict severe and lasting damage on a youth’s prospects for a healthy and productive future. Perhaps the most common means through which such sanctions foreclose opportunity is through preventing high school graduation. Although definitive evidence of a causal impact of school suspensions on dropout is lacking, Peguero and Bracy ( 2015 ) found that suspensions elevate the risk of dropout, even after controlling for a large set of risk factors, including prior delinquency. This evidence aligns with qualitative research documenting how schools use their disciplinary systems to “push out” unwanted students (Morris, 2015 ). The evidence that arrests and juvenile court involvement cause early school exits is more rigorous (Hirschfield, 2009 ; Kirk & Sampson, 2013 ), although research has not examined the impact of school-based arrests and court referrals. Some jurisdictions permit schools to exclude students for their off-campus legal entanglements, and scholars have noted that students released from secure confinement often face various obstacles to successful reenrollment, including mandatory alternative schooling, bureaucratic delays, and curricular discontinuities (Hirschfield, 2014 ; Kim, Losen, & Hewitt, 2010 ).

Dropping out of school, in turn, appears to be a frequent stop en route from school to prison. Whereas recent evidence challenges a causal link between dropout and subsequent criminal behavior in the near term (Sweeten et al., 2009 ; Na, 2017 ), research consistently suggests that dropping out of school increases the risk of arrest (Na, 2017 ; Bell et al., 2016 ). Likewise, school dropout, like suspensions, can violate the terms of probation and parole and elevate the risk of formal processing (but not petitions and adjudication) (Bishop et al., 2010 ). Bishop et al. ( 2010 ) also found that dropout status increases the risk of out-of-home placement.

Even if school dropout has a minor or fleeting impact on criminal behavior or juvenile justice involvement, its effects can reverberate across the life course and culminate in adult incarceration. Lacking a high school diploma can greatly diminish prospects for success in marriage and the labor market. Thus, getting in trouble at a young age often deprives youth of the social ties, social control, and human capital that helps to avoid trouble as adults (Rios, 2011 ). The lack of educational credentials can be particularly disadvantageous when combined with the negative credential of a juvenile and/or criminal record and in urban contexts where decent jobs for less-educated workers are scarce (Bell et al., 2016 ; Kirk & Sampson, 2013 ). Accordingly, Pettit and Western ( 2004 ) observed that nearly 60% of black male high school dropouts were incarcerated by age 34 compared to only 11% of non-Hispanic white male dropouts. Likewise, Wolf and Kupchik ( 2017 ) recently found that being suspended from school between grades 7 and 12 is associated with the risks of both committing a crime and being incarcerated 14 years later, even after controlling for years of school completed and myriad other risk factors.

Overall, research supports principal components of the STPP model, especially the adverse consequences of school exclusion. More research is needed to examine whether the observed associations are robust to more rigorous methodologies and to assess the impact of school-based arrests and court referrals. Considerable research also supports the core contention of many STPP proponents that African Americans are disproportionately selected for “pipeline processes” and that these processes are disparately harmful to them (Cuellar & Markowitz, 2015 ). However, for this contention evidence is incomplete and inconsistent as well (see Bishop et al., 2010 ).

The Future of the Pipeline

The pipeline metaphor is useful for characterizing the predictable pathways that many students follow en route to incarceration. Most STPP models properly depict multiple pathways between school punishment and criminal justice involvement. The image of a progressively punitive “pipeline” emphasizes that movement through each stage increases the odds of moving through successive stages. Criminological theories such as cumulative disadvantage are helpful for understanding movement through the pipeline (Mowen & Brent, 2016 ). That said, a pipeline is not the only way of characterizing the interrelationship between school and justice system experiences. Other metaphors and models are needed that take into account the role of individual agency, reverse pathways (e.g., returns to school following dropout or incarceration), and other social and government institutions (e.g., social service and treatment agencies).

Limitations of the STPP model aside, the devastating short- and long-term consequences of school punishment and criminalization for targeted students, and for their families and communities, are real (Kupchik, 2016 ). Various states and local jurisdictions are beginning to acknowledge the negative consequences of merging educational and the criminal justice processes.

Restorative Justice and Restricting the Use of Police

The criminal justice system provides a template not only for swiftly removing students from school but also for helping offenders repair the harm their crimes have done to victims and the community. Reforms have been instituted across the country that target various aspects of STPP, such as the hyper-exclusionary zero-tolerance discipline practices that target minor offenses, schools’ tendencies to refer disciplinary problems to law enforcement, and the discriminatory manner in which these sanctions are levied. This section will provide examples of successful efforts underway to dismantle the pipeline, including restorative justice programs, PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention Services), and diversion programs.

Numerous jurisdictions have adopted school-based restorative justice to supplement or partially supplant exclusionary approaches. For example, Denver, Colorado, was a forerunner in the shift from punitive to restorative justice as an explicit effort to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a coalition of parents and students backed by the Advancement Project, took aim at discriminatory school disciplinary practices in Denver. 9 Reform initiatives targeted multiple aspects of STPP. First, they reduced suspensions by training thousands of educators in restorative justice practices and revising the district’s disciplinary code. Second, new disciplinary codes mandated that schools make less use of suspensions and expulsions and implement more restorative and therapeutic alternatives. Lastly, an Intergovernmental Agreement was reached between Denver Public Schools and the Denver Police Department that focused on redefining the role of police in schools, with a focus on distinguishing between disciplinary issues and crime (Hirschfield, 2018 ). As a result, schools experienced reductions in the use of exclusionary discipline and the racial disparities that persist therein. Between 2005 and 2015 out-of-school suspensions fell by 64%, and referrals to law enforcement fell by 31% in Denver (Hirschfield, 2018 ). Evidence also suggests academic improvement in reading levels and graduation rates as a result of these reforms.

Numerous other jurisdictions have followed Denver’s lead. Oakland has seen comparable gains from their restorative justice programs. Local reforms, like Oakland’s, are sometimes spurred by federal investigative and enforcement actions, which explicitly aimed to address the STPP. Under federal scrutiny, Oakland expanded and revised their disciplinary practices in schools. They later joined Los Angeles and Pasadena in banning suspensions for willful defiance and prohibiting school officials from involving law enforcement to address violations of school rules and nonviolent offenses (Hirschfield, 2018 ). With the recent blessing of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing ( 2015 ), administrators have limited the scope of police responsibilities within schools. For example, districts such as Baltimore, Buffalo, Chicago, and Fort Wayne reduced the number offenses for which schools can refer students to law enforcement (Hirschfield, 2018 ). Other jurisdictions such as Broward County, Sedgwick County (Kansas), and Cambridge (Massachusetts) mandated that police resort to arrest less frequently and refer students to diversion programs (Hirschfield, 2018 ).

It is important to note that restorative justice reforms do not address the special needs of students with chronic behavioral problems and disorders and who account for a disproportionate share of students subject to harsh and exclusionary policies (Palley, 2004 ; Dickinson & Miller, 2006 ; Fabelo et al., 2011 ). One way to reduce school exclusion is to provide treatment and support that effectively prevent further misbehavior. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs promoted the implementation of Positive Behavioral Intervention Services (PBIS), equipping states and school districts with additional resources to train individuals supporting children with disabilities, in positive, non-punitive responses to misconduct including rewards systems, revised teaching expectations that accommodate different learning styles, and more intensive interventions that are multitiered and culturally responsive. 10 PBIS has proven benefits including reducing suspensions and dropout (Horner et al., 2010 ).

Considering Trauma

Trauma has not typically been factored into school disciplinary decisions. However, trauma, whether due to exposure to violence, poverty, racism, or other negative life events, can impact the life of a student much like war trauma affects military veterans. In 2015 , public counsel and Irell & Manella LLP filed a lawsuit against the Compton Unified School District on behalf of teachers and students, asserting that students experiencing trauma had been punished and excluded more than supported and provided with a healthy school learning environment. The plaintiffs and their supporters mandated that practices be implemented to support students suffering from emotional trauma, similar to those that assist students with physical and learning disabilities. 11

The mandates made by the plaintiffs in this case are in line with other trauma-centered alternatives implemented by other states (e.g., Massachusetts): providing mental health services for high-risk students, trauma-informed training for educators and school staff, teaching emotional coping skills to students, and creating restorative strategies to keep students in the classroom. 12 The claims in this lawsuit also bolster research suggesting the importance of trauma in explaining differential involvement by race and gender in the school disciplinary process. For example, in her analysis of the overrepresentation of black girls in school discipline, Morris ( 2015 ) notes that many black girls in trouble at school have been overexposed to racial and gender-based oppressions including violence (sexual and otherwise), which can contribute to defiant behaviors at school such as violations of the dress code. Morris calls for educators and school staff to recognize the “centrality of trauma and the conditions that affect black girls’ actions.” (Morris, 2015 , p. 50). Morris ( 2015 ) calls for healing-informed learning spaces in which teachers and school staff employ empathic discipline (which has proven successful in reducing the incidence of out-of-school suspension), unbiased curriculum, and a focus on college and career readiness.

The Teske Model

In Clayton County, Georgia, Chief Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske implemented a comprehensive program that has inspired similar reforms around the country. 13 The “Teske Model” explicitly aims to disrupt the flow of students from schools to juvenile courts. As many of the previously mentioned critiques of the pipeline metaphor state, the issue is complex, involving multiple social stakeholders including law enforcement, schools, and social services. Judge Teske takes a holistic approach to school discipline, recognizing that actions and inactions on the part of various interdependent entities push students into courts (Hirschfield, 2012 ). Systemic analysis of the problem in Clayton County revealed that schools essentially transferred responsibility for addressing behavioral issues to the juvenile justice system because schools lacked the resources to manage all students’ behavioral needs. To address the challenges to improving school-based and prevention and disciplinary policy, the juvenile court and its partnering agencies created a county-funded, team-based service entity that includes a mental health professional, the school’s social worker, a social services professional, a juvenile court officer, other service providers, and a trained facilitator provided by the courts (Teske et al., 2013 ). To further reduce referrals, the school district and the chief of police signed an agreement that mandated a three-step procedure would be followed for students who committed misdemeanor offenses at school, where referral to the juvenile courts would be a last resort after receiving a warning on the first offense and a conflict skills workshop on the second (Teske et al., 2013 ).

Like the desegregation of schools, many of the recent efforts to dismantle STPP have been spurred and overseen by the federal government. Other states such as Connecticut, 14 North Carolina, 15 Kentucky, 16 Virginia, 17 and others have pursued reforms similar to those described here. Local reform efforts have encountered some pushback from entrenched interest groups such as teachers associations. Some teachers and school administrators have complained that reforms curtail one of the few available tools to ensure student and staff safety (e.g., suspensions) without providing them effective resources to replace exclusionary discipline. Disciplinary alternatives, when implemented with few resources and in contexts with “entrenched punitive logics” may come to function as disguised, alternative forms of exclusion (see Brent, 2017 ).

Future Research Directions

As mentioned previously, the pipeline model has been criticized for being under-theorized (McGrew, 2016 ), overly mechanistic, and deterministic (Kupchik, 2014 ; Hirschfield, 2012 ). Some scholars have suggested research strategies to address some of these weaknesses. Hirschfield ( 2012 ) suggests a multi-tiered analysis of school discipline policies and practices to investigate how the multiple layers of influence work together to push youth out of the classroom, out of school, and ultimately into the criminal justice system. Most empirical studies have focused on single posited links (e.g., between suspensions and arrest). Better tests of STPP’s multi-stage models would involve mediational analyses. For example, researchers can assess whether juvenile justice involvement mediates the relationship between school suspensions/arrests and dropout, as well as whether dropout mediates the relationship between juvenile arrests and adult incarceration. Also needed are more analyses of the differential impacts of the practices and processes in the STPP by race. Additionally, more qualitative research is needed to examine whether the observed statistical relationships comport with lived experiences (i.e., people’s own accounts of the impact of school exclusion and criminalization on their life trajectories). Lastly, future research on STPP should consider the impact of alternatives to exclusionary discipline such as trauma-informed strategies, restorative practices, and multi-tiered alternative models that involve multiple stakeholders from education, the courts, and law enforcement. It will be crucial to evaluate whether or not these changes to school discipline have disrupted the pipeline in qualitatively and statistically meaningful ways.

A Legacy of Limits and Promise

The school-to-prison pipeline clusters several concepts and processes including school exclusion and criminalization, juvenile justice sanctioning, and disproportionality in punishment under a singular broader process. Consequently, it has been a useful heuristic (Skiba et al., 2014 ) that has helped forge advocacy coalitions and service partnerships across institutional domains. Whereas the term garnered widespread acceptance within advocacy and policy circles, its academic utility is debatable. Its tenuous theoretical grounding and overly purposeful or mechanistic depiction of the nexus between schools and criminal justice are purported weaknesses of the metaphor. That said, empirical evidence does support a causal connection between school exclusion and arrests as well as between juvenile justice involvement and school dropout. This provides a promising initial foundation of empirical support for STPP. Additional quantitative and qualitative research is needed to determine which theories posited by STPP hold up to empirical scrutiny and which do not. Furthermore, education stakeholders would benefit from multi-layered analyses that attempt to see the issue as a broad web of influences in the over-incarceration of youth. Although research in this area needs to become more complex and sophisticated, school discipline policy reforms will not pause to wait for the best empirical results.

Links to Digital Materials

  • ACLU—Juvenile Justice (“School-to-Prison Pipeline” and “Police Presence in Schools.”)
  • ACLU—school-to-prison pipeline infographic.
  • Civil Rights Project—school-to-prison pipeline data.
  • Suspension Stories—school-to-prison pipeline infographic.
  • Trauma and Learning— Peter P., et al. v. Compton Unified School District, et al .

Further Reading

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  • Hirschfield, P. J. , & Celinska, K. (2011). Beyond fear: Sociological perspectives on the criminalization of school discipline. Sociology Compass , 5 (1), 1–12.
  • Kupchik, A. , Bracy, N. , Apple, M. , Hirschfield, P. , Casella, R. , Gilliom, J. , et al. (2009). Schools under surveillance: Cultures of control in public education . New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • Morris, M. W. (2015). Pushout: The criminalization of black girls in schools . New York: The New Press.
  • Noguera, P. A. (2003). Schools, prisons, and social implications of punishment: Rethinking disciplinary practices. Theory Into Practice , 42 (4), 341–350.
  • Skiba, R. J. , Arredondo, M. I. , & Williams, N. T. (2014). More than a metaphor: The contribution of exclusionary discipline to a school-to-prison pipeline. Equity & Excellence in Education , 47 (4), 546–564.
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  • Hirschfield, P. “Trends in School Social Control in the U.S.: Explaining Patterns of Decriminalization.” In J. Deakin , E. Taylor , A. Kupchik (Eds.), The Palgrave International Handbook of School Discipline, Surveillance and Social Control (forthcoming in 2018).
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  • Kupchik, A. (2014). The school-to-prison pipeline: Rhetoric and reality. In F. E. Zimring & D. S. Tanenhaus (Eds.), Choosing the future for American juvenile justice . New York: New York University Press.
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  • Leiber, M. J. (2013). Race, pre-and postdetention, and juvenile justice decision making. Crime & Delinquency , 59 (3), 396–418.
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  • McGrew, K. (2016). The dangers of pipeline thinking: How the school-to-prison pipeline metaphor squeezes out complexity . Educational Theory , 66 (3), 341–367.
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  • Morris, M. W. (2016). Protecting black girls. Educational Leadership , 74 (3), 49–53.
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1. Northeastern University .

2. Dignity denied: the effect of “zero tolerance” policies on students’ human rights .

3. School Climate and Discipline .

4. Secretary Duncan, Attorney General Holder Announce Effort to Respond to School-to-Prison Pipeline by Supporting Good Discipline Practices .

5. H.R.2455 — 103rd Congress (1993–1994) .

6. Safe Schools Act .

7. H.R.1 - No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 .

8. Teen gets detention on violation .

9. Padres & Jóvenes Unidos .

10. Achieving equity in school discipline .

11. Trauma & Learning .

12. Judge Steve Teske seeks to keep kids with minor problems out of court .

13. Our Stories .

14. New America .

15. Instead of Suspension .

16. American Educator .

17. Virginia lawmaker wants to tighten rules on how schools can discipline students .

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School house or jailhouse: exploring the school to prison pipeline

  • Masters Thesis
  • Jacquenee Ryan Polee
  • Ming-Yeh Lee
  • Doris A. Flowers
  • San Francisco
  • Education: Concentration in Equity and Social Justice in Education
  • San Francisco State University
  • AS36 2014 EDUC .P65
  • 2014-12-17T18:02:52Z
  • http://hdl.handle.net/10211.3/132195
  • Copyright by Jacquenee Ryan Polee, 2014


  • 2014 Education: Concentration in Equity and Social Justice in Education Masters Theses

San Francisco State University

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Educ 300: Education Reform, Past and Present

an undergraduate course with Professor Jack Dougherty at Trinity College, Hartford CT

The School-to-Prison Pipeline Research Essay Proposal

Research Question:

What is the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and what steps have various reform groups taken to halt the funneling of students into the criminal justice system in major U.S. cities over the past five years?

The school-to-prison pipeline plagues schools and youth across the country, specifically minority and disabled students in urban areas. Due to policies employed in elementary and secondary schools across the United States, students are funneled directly from the school system into the criminal justice system. Many of these schools have metal detectors at every entrance, law enforcement officers staffing the buildings and campuses, and intense zero-tolerance policies that treat minor and major infractions with similar severity. Authorities and educators have shown an increasing dependence on suspensions, expulsions, and outside law enforcement to intervene when faced with disciplinary issues in the classroom. The removal of students from the classroom setting regularly for both major and minor disciplinary infractions poses significant physical and emotional risks to youth. Often, young people living in urban settings are led to feel that arrest and incarceration are inevitable and are simply what lies ahead in their futures. Recidivism rates for juveniles are shockingly high and the school-to-prison pipeline only adds to these figures. The fact that school policies could be, at least in part, responsible for guiding students into the criminal justice system is alarming; any policies or campaigns to put a stop to this pipeline are incredibly important.

Research Strategy:

To start my research, I used Google, Google Scholar, and JStor to search “school to prison pipeline” in an effort to gather broad, background information about the school-to-prison pipeline. After gathering information about the way the pipeline is defined and framed, I narrowed my search to “school to prison pipeline new york city” and “education policy school to prison pipeline.” Next I moved on to create a working list of groups dedicated to tackling the pipeline by searching “school to prison pipeline reform” and “education reformers new york, ny.” I then searched some of the names that I found cropping up in multiple articles to expand my list of reformers and campaigns. While I do have a list of individuals who are prominent leaders in the field and their accomplishments, I would like to delve deeper into not only the reform methods that they have tried and succeeded with, but also those attempts that were not successful.

“A Look At School Discipline | New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) – American Civil Liberties Union of New York State.” A Look At School Discipline | New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) – American Civil Liberties Union of New York State . New York Civil Liberties Union, n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2013. http://www.nyclu.org/schooltoprison/factsheet

“A Look At School Safety | New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) – American Civil Liberties Union of New York State.” A Look At School Safety | New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) – American Civil Liberties Union of New York State . New York Civil Liberties Union, n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2013. http://www.nyclu.org/schooltoprison/lookatsafety

Kim, Catherine Y., Daniel J. Losen, and Damon Hewitt. The School to Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform . New York: New York UP, 2010. Print.

“Medgar Evers College President William L. Pollard and Kings County District Attorney Charles J. Hynes Present a Symposium on Race, Law and Justice: Strategies for Closing the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” CUNY Newswire . The City University of New York, 14 Feb. 2013. Web. 05 Apr. 2013. <http://www1.cuny.edu/mu/forum/2013/02/14/medgar-evers-college-president-william-l-pollard-and-kings-county-district-attorney-charles-j-hynes-present-a-symposium-on-race-law-and-justice-strategies-for-closing-the-school-to-prison-pipeline/>.

Resmovits, Joy. “School-To-Prison Pipeline Targeted By Judges, Education Officials.” The Huffington Post . TheHuffingtonPost.com, 12 Mar. 2012. Web. 04 Apr. 2013. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/12/school-to-prison-pipeline_n_1340380.html

“School-to-Prison Pipeline.” American Civil Liberties Union . N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Apr. 2013. http://www.aclu.org/racial-justice/school-prison-pipeline

“The Student Safety Act | New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) – American Civil Liberties Union of New York State.” The Student Safety Act | New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) – American Civil Liberties Union of New York State . New York Civil Liberties Union, n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2013. http://www.nyclu.org/schooltoprison/ssa

Wald, J. and Losen, D. J. Defining and redirecting a school-to-prison pipeline. New Directions for Youth Development, 2003: 9–15. doi: 10.1002/yd.51


Welch, Kelly, and Allison Ann Payne. “Racial Threat and Punitive School Discipline.” Social Problems 57.1 (2010): 25-48. JSTOR . Web. 02 Apr. 2013. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/sp.2010.57.1.25

“YCP.” YCP . Kings County District Attorney Office, n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2013. www. brooklyn da.org/ YCP / YCP .htm

One thought on “The School-to-Prison Pipeline Research Essay Proposal”

As we discussed, this is a very rich topic that illustrates a diverse array of approaches to the current issue, including (among several you mentioned) reforms to 1) change school security and safety; 2) mentoring youth outside of school; 3) redirecting youthful offenders away from the court system; restorative justice, etc. To fully embrace the Ed 300 change/continuity guidelines, a revised research question might ask how these approaches above responded to a particular milestone in juvenile legal issues. For example, prior students have examined what happened after passage of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act of 1974. That may not be the right milestone for your RQ, but looking for an anchor would help ground your essay in a specific time period. (For example, you could search EdWeek.org for subsequent policy changes that included the key phrase above).

Furthermore, as we discussed, when you continue your search strategy, consider looking in librarian-run databases for key terms, then seeing similar titles under similar subject headings organized by librarians. This works well in Trincoll.worldcat.org as well as some of the specialized databases like Ed Full Text.

Also consider searching EdWeek.org (back to 1981) for juvenile + prison stories, such as this, to find key policy milestones/obstacles. See example: http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/1988/06/15/x38price.h07.html?r=987699171

Definitely look at the Losen works above.

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