Thoughts on Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline
Editor’s Note: Periodically, we will publish short essays by current SSW students on the topics they’re learning about and addressing in their school social work placements. Today we’re excited to share the work of Ms. Hannah Bond, an MSW candidate at the University of Iowa on what she’s been learning (and seeing) about ways to start dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. If you’re a current SSW student and want to submit something to us, pitch us an idea by emailing [email protected]
The relationship between the juvenile court systems and America’s public schools is long, complicated, and marred by issues like racism and child poverty. This unfortunate partnership is currently known as the school-to-prison-pipeline. Commonly referred to as the STPP, the school-to-prison pipeline is a result of policy changes towards zero-tolerance policies, law enforcement in schools, and ‘tough on crime’ attitudes (Mallett, 2016).
Many students facing these new, more punitive approaches find themselves disciplined for discretionary behaviors. These are behaviors like defiance, disrespect, talking back, and other similar actions (McCarter, 2016). Discipline includes in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, and expulsion – and we know that these disciplinary actions can have long-term negative effects.
Just one suspension leads to a higher chance of a student repeating a grade, dropping out, or having contact with the juvenile justice system (McCarter, 2016).
There are circumstances that put a child at risk of receiving harsh discipline and getting trapped in the proverbial pipeline. Students of color, especially Black and Hispanic students, are overly represented in discipline data (McCarter, 2016). Looking at a 2010 study written by McCarter, 2016, “43 percent of Black students in grades 6 through 12 experienced suspensions compared with 22 percent Hispanic students and 16 percent White students.” Looking at the rates of suspension, from 1972-1973 to 2009-2010, rates for White children increased 1.1%. However, rates almost doubled for Hispanic students and rose 12.5% for Black students. A 2011 study done in Texas allowed for researchers to look at just the effect of race on discipline; Black students had a 31% higher threat of receiving discipline at school (McCarter, 2016).
Other risks include experiencing poverty, experiencing homelessness, having a disability, or utilizing special education services. Identifying as LGBTQ or gender-nonconforming also makes a child more likely to be disciplined, as well as being male (Mallett, 2016). Many of these identities and experiences will intersect. For example, students who are most affected by punitive policies are low-income, male, students of color – specifically Black males (Mallett, 2016). Students who fit these characteristics are found in practically every district, making it a relevant issue in all schools, both urban and rural.
How Social Workers Can Help
School social workers have a particular skill set that empowers them to effectively work towards eradicating the school-to-prison pipeline, and this should be our goal. Many school districts have made policy changes and adjusted disciplinary measures and policies to address this issue, and social workers can help research and determine what the impact of these changes are.
Social workers can also help facilitate conversation, lead professional development opportunities, or race analysis work – we know that practices like education and regular assessment ensure progress (McCarter, 2016).
Restorative justice practices, evidence-based practices, and social-emotional learning are increasingly common in schools and have also been proven to be effective (though some scholars raise concerns about how effective these approaches can ultimately be without a full commitment to antiracist practices in the school context). In addition to making antiracist practices part of their mission, school social workers can assist in and advocate for the use of programs like Restorative Justice to try to disrupt the STPP. Lastly, social workers can work to ensure that students receiving suspensions continue to receive instruction, as well as advocate for the prompt re-enrollment for students who have received out-of-school placements (McCarter, 2016). The school-to-prison pipeline is a system that currently harms our students, and we can do something about it. School social workers have the knowledge and skills – as well as an ethical commitment – to see it eliminated.
The school-to-prison pipeline is a system that currently harms our students, and we can do something about it. School social workers have the knowledge and skills – as well as an ethical commitment – to see it eliminated.
Where I live in the Midwest, I sometimes get the sense from those around me that most social justice issues related to racism are problems elsewhere, not here. Not true. Researching the Des Moines Independent Community School District, which enrolls around 33,000 students, we can see that Black students represent 19.6% of the population. However, Black students make up over 30% of suspensions, 75% of expulsions, and 42% of referrals to law enforcement. Looking further, we can see the breakdown that Black males are particularly vulnerable to receive harsh discipline, as well as IDEA students. This fuels the school-to-prison pipeline. To look at your school district, check out https://ocrdata.ed.gov/search/district which will direct you to search for a school or district; by looking at the discipline report.
As school social workers, feeling this call to action can inspire us to begin taking steps to examine our own schools. We can begin by learning more about the STPP, your district’s discipline strategies/discipline reporting, and the school’s current programs or practices for building positive behavior and relationships.
Knowledge is a powerful tool in beginning to make change. Taking steps towards change can include beginning tough conversations with school administration if we see data shows that vulnerable students receive more discipline, discipline strategies are overly harsh and contribute to the pipeline, or witness a derogatory statement made about a student or group of students.
School social workers can begin conversations and start collecting research to advocate for implementing a change in harsh discipline policies, trying a new program to build school climate, or converting to a restorative justice approach as needed. If a school is currently taking steps towards these changes, social workers can advocate for themselves to be involved in collecting and analyzing data. This ensures we are part of the foundational processes of building a just and more evidence-based system.
Mallett, C.A. (2015). The school-to-prison pipeline: A critical review of the punitive paradigm shift. Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, 33(1), 15-24. DOI 10.1007/s10560-015-0397-1
McCarter, S. (2016). The school-to-prison pipeline: A primer for social workers. Social Work, 62(1), 53-61. DOI: 10.1093/sw/sww078