The “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to the confluence of educational policies that increases the likelihood that at-risk students will end up in jail rather than college or the workforce. Students of color and students with disabilities are especially likely to be caught in the pipeline. Racial disparities in school discipline rates, termed the “discipline gap,” play a key role. Last spring, Penn State Law hosted a discussion panel on this critical issue featuring three educational equity advocates: Dr. Bill Ayers of the University of Illinois at Chicago (retired), Harold Jordan of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, and Nancy Potter of the Education Law Center.
The federal government has taken steps to stop the pipeline. In December 2012, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” where Senator Dick Durbin observed that the rise of “zero tolerance” in the 1990s caused a sharp increase in suspensions, and that suspended students are more likely to encounter academic difficulties and enter the juvenile justice system. Congress has recently considered legislation to limit schools’ use of suspension, including a bill introduced by Pennsylvania’s own Senator Bob Casey. Additionally, The U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released legal and technical guidance in early 2014 to help schools close the discipline gap.
Efforts to stop the school-to-prison pipeline are not without critics. Some commentators, such as Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, posit that Black students are suspended at higher rates because they are more likely to experience family problems leading to misbehavior in school. Mac Donald invokes the “broken-windows” theory of crime prevention, arguing that minor misbehavior should be punished swiftly to prevent more serious infractions. National Review’s Ian Tuttle similarly contends that the Obama administration “should stop perpetuating the bogeyman of racists administering every schoolhouse and jailhouse.”
These criticisms distort the social science of the school-to-prison pipeline. As Nancy Potter wryly noted during Penn State’s discussion panel, advocates for school discipline reform do not believe educators wake up in the morning and resolve to discriminate against their students. The driving force behind discipline disparities is not deliberate discrimination but implicit bias, deeply rooted, unconscious attitudes about race. In a survey of relevant empirical research, Indiana University’s “Discipline Disparities” research-to-practice collaborative demonstrates that implicit bias against minorities pervades U.S. culture, and contributes to discipline disparities by nudging educators to react differently to misbehavior based on the students’ race. In a separate survey of relevant research, the Discipline Disparities collaborative shows that, across numerous studies, racial disparities in discipline rates persist even after controlling for the severity and type of student behavior leading to suspension.
Applying the “broken-windows” theory to the school discipline context is similarly misguided. The reasoning behind “broken windows” is that scrupulous enforcement of minor offenses establishes stronger behavioral norms which obviate serious offenses. As Harold Jordan noted during the discussion panel, however, research shows that “broken windows” theory does not hold true in the school discipline context. A 2008 report on zero tolerance policies by the American Psychological Association revealed that using suspension to punish students does not improve school climate, and may actually increase the likelihood of future misbehavior. Pushing students out of school through suspension can worsen feelings of alienation and disengagement, contributing to later academic and behavioral problems.
Fortunately, research has identified several promising strategies to close the school discipline gap. One promising strategy is restorative justice practices, which focus on building relationships and repairing harm resulting from misbehavior. Restorative practices reduce schools’ reliance on suspension by generating disciplinary alternatives and improving student behavior. These practices include formal processes such as restorative circles and conferences as well as informal techniques to prevent misbehavior by sparking awareness of responsibility, community, and relationships. As Bill Ayers pointed out during the panel, anyone can use these techniques to strengthen relationships, including educators seeking to improve the behavioral climate of their classrooms.
While the federal government can play an important role in closing the discipline gap, responsibility for fair school discipline ultimately lies with local educators. Teachers, administrators, and policymakers in Pennsylvania and throughout the nation can improve the educational opportunities of our most disadvantaged students by adopting research-based policy and practices to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.