How Discipline in Schools Leads to the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Low Income Communities


The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the process whereby, experiences of disciplinary in school augment students’ probability of contact with the juvenile justice system. It refers to institutional practice of channeling school students that are frequently from disadvantaged families into the criminal justice system. This contact with criminal justice is consequently related with devastating economic, educational, and personal consequences, for the affected youths. There are three historical developments which have made the greatest considerable contributions to the growth of pipeline into a large-scale, ethnically disproportionate phenomenon. The first one was the school discipline criminalization. The school discipline criminalization refers to a shift offshoot towards crime punitive policy that started in the 1970s, signaling a mass incarceration era that has never been experienced before in human history, and providing dubious record to the United States, of having the biggest quantity of prisoners in the globe (Raufu, 2017). Given the prevailing milieu mood, it appeared inevitable for the same to be extended eventually to other elements of American life. This inevitability ultimately took place on the back of various school ground crimes, which commanded the attention of the public, hastening the zero tolerance school discipline policy introduction in American schools.

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The second phenomenon was a parallel rise in the augmented presence of police in school, which basically meant that the non-safety associated offenses, which were initially handled by school staff may now be addressed by law enforcement. These changes resulted to increase in school-founded arrests and contact with justice system. The third phenomenon was increase in people biasness while judging people from minority groups. Implicit or unconscious bias test has demonstrated that about 40% of blacks and 80% of white are negatively biased over Blacks, consistently relating them to antisocial constructs that include laziness and aggression (Stahl, 2017). This kind of biasedness has been shown in school discipline, where Latino and African American students receive hasher and more frequent penalties for behaviors that are same as their white colleagues with similar backgrounds. Black youth are said to suffer most deadly consequences due to societal racial biases of the pipeline, due to their overexposure to its techniques. When combined, the three aspects served as the foundation of the dramatic increase of harsh school discipline, and ultimately develop a greatly racialized school-to-prison pipeline (Stahl, 2017). This paper describes how discipline in schools has resulted to the school-to-prison pipeline among students from low income communities.  

How Discipline in Schools Leads to the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Low Income Communities

According to the education reform activists, the pipeline metaphor is premised on the idea that schools in towns are failing to break the criminality and poverty cycle. Schooling practices that either lacks sensitivity, such as authoritative control, policing and surveillance, and zero tolerance policies, or are institutionally racist, contribute a great deal to how specific populations experience schooling. In schools, specific populations are frequently subjected to educators’ deficit discourses, who might construct their pedagogical process around alleged shortfall in ability of students to learn, as a result of their membership in a distinct cultural or social group (Crawley & Hirschfield, 2018).  The school-to-prison pipeline (STPP) metaphor comprises of different discipline practices and policies in which, students are labeled as troublemakers, students are excluded from schools, and augment the possibility of involvement in juvenile justice, delinquency and subsequent incarceration. A number of external forces support these practices and polices including panel policies, harsh practices in justice system, and high stakes testing, as well as federal laws, which enhance the referral of specific school crimes into law enforcement. Some of the pathways postulated by the STPP have been confirmed by the research. For instance, research demonstrates that out-of-school suspensions forecast school dropout, involvement in justice system, and adult incarceration.

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According to Spiller and Porter (2014), STPP models stipulate different pathways, via which, school experiences enhance justice system involvement. Different studies have demonstrated that school suspensions augment arrest risk and involvement to juvenile justice over long and short term. The risks are also said to double in the time of suspensions. The impact does not seem to be just an automatic result of extra time away from school, since the effect is higher on weekdays compared to weekends. This research offers strong proof that being suspended during school day attracts more police scrutiny. In addition, suspensions augment the felony arrest risk that proposes that consistent with strain and labeling theories, suspension might also augment offending behavior. According to Spiller and Porter (2014), school officials might augment vulnerability of students to police scrutiny not just via suspensions, but also via disciplinary alternative schools transfer. A number of qualitative researches have recorded that students transferred to alternative school are subject to police surveillance, enhancement near and on school property. Promoted school police scrutiny can consequently increase the school exclusion risk. This might not only increase police scrutiny and delinquency in short run, but it might as well intensify justice system interactions, over in the long run, via multiple mechanisms. To begin with, school exclusion can act as a stigmatizing labels source that can weaken positive influences and social support at school and at home, and thus, augmenting delinquency. School exclusion along with these adverse consequences might impact risk assessment and compliance on decision makers’ part in the juvenile justice system (Crawley & Hirschfield, 2018). For instance, according to Crawley and Hirschfield (2018), youths arrested with past school disciplinary issues in Iowa County were more probable to be formally processes, even after taking past offenses into consideration and the severity and number of current charges. Issues of discipline also augment the odds of being formal delinquency petition subject, though just among African Americans.

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The research demonstrates that although school indiscipline can result to involvement with criminal justice, the chances of incarnation are low. Most of youths are given probation. According to Crawley and Hirschfield (2018), majority of youths on probation are permitted to continue attending school. For such youths, new cases of school arrest or suspensions can initiate punitive reactions from secondary sanctioning. A school suspension in many jurisdictions contains a violation of parole or probation terms, which can yield to secure confinement. Provided that the foregoing secondary sanctioning processes further criminalize, stigmatize and marginalize students, it is not surprising that longitudinal researches have established that being suspended from school is related to juvenile involvement or subsequent arrest, particularly after multiple suspensions (Crawley & Hirschfield, 2018). These impacts are seen even for students that remain enrolled and even when self-reported offending is considered.  The observed school suspensions effects on police scrutiny, support, social status and secondary sanctioning probability for school-founded court referrals and school arrests are evident. School arrests, which are products of promoted school policing, are probable to influence processing of juvenile justice, provided that they generate a police record and frequently trigger involvement of the court. Although school arrests and suspensions rarely directly result to incarceration, they together with juvenile justice interactions facilitate to infliction of lasting and severe damage, on a prospects of youth for productive and healthy future (Crawley & Hirschfield, 2018).

School discipline criminalization has been established as a risk factor which inclines public school students, especially African American students to be in interaction with the criminal justice system, and how it might partly explain the noticeable gap in academic achievement between African American and White students. According to Raufu (2017), recent research demonstrates that students who have had cumulative school discipline violations suspension are more inclined to dealing with the criminal justice system, either with regard to conviction or arrest, than those that have not experienced suspension. The research also demonstrates a relationship between constant school discipline insubordination by students and the arrest risk, and the transition to school-to-prison pipeline. The main issue that surrounds STPP is that is mostly affect students of color. According King, Rusoja and Peguero (2018), research demonstrate that Latino and Black American student in schools in the United States tend to be suspended for subjective mistakes that include disrespectful behaviors such as “passing gas in class, bringing cell phone to class or violating school dressing code” (Nance, 2016) . On the contrary, White students are only suspended for objective reasons that include smoking. This demonstrates discriminative approach to the STPP, where students from minority groups are judged and punished harshly than Whites. With subjective charges, there is normally a disparity in the school policies enforcement that results to unfair punishment distribution. This makes students to perceive punishment as unjust or unfair, a situation that impact students possibility of abiding by the policies of a school. Punitive climates at school with disparity in enforcement of rule can impact academic engagement, and force students out of school by instigating school disengagement indirectly. School disengagement refers to a practice which generates an uncomfortable students’ environment, by distancing them from academic and social support (King, Rusoja & Peguero, 2018). 

The past reviewed literature demonstrates that STPP mostly affects African American and Latino students. This creates the need of assessing the cases of indiscipline in school and how students of low social economic communities fair, without paying much attention to their race. According to Skiba, Michael, Nardo and Peterson (2002), school suspension studies have consistently recorded the overrepresentation of students of low-socioeconomic status in disciplinary consequences. The data shows that students who get free school lunch are at high risk of being suspended from school. It was also established that learners whose fathers did not have a permanent job were essentially more probable to be suspended, compared to students whose fathers were permanently employed. In a different study, student response to school discipline was evaluated by interviewing adolescent learners from both low- and high-income residential areas, regarding their response to school discipline and school climate Skiba et al. (2002). The results demonstrated that both high- and low-income adolescents approved that students from low-income families were targeted unfairly by school disciplinary sanctions. There also seemed to be variations in the form of punishment given to students of various social classes. Students from high-income families were more frequently reported to get moderate and mild consequences such as seat reassignment and teacher reprimand, while those of low income families were reported to get more severe penalties, sometimes offered in a less-than professional way such as being yelled at in front of other student, forced to stand all day in the hall or searching their personal belongings (Skiba et al., 2002). This research demonstrated that students from low income families where likely to experience harsh punishment even for minor offenses, than high income families, without paying much attention to race. Poor socioeconomic status was thus identified as one factor that would influence teachers’ biasness toward students when judging their offenses, and while punishing them. Judging based on this perspective, high number of African American and Latinos involvement in harsh punishment may be associated by their poor social and economic background (Skiba et al., 2002).

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Poor socioeconomic status is highly related with development of negative behaviors among children. According to Kaiser, Li, Pollmann-Schult and Song (2017), there is huge research evidence that show that low socioeconomic status, low income and poverty are connected to behavioral problems in adolescents and children. This has in the past been explained by the Family Investment Model (FIM) or Family Stress Model (FSM) though there is no clear mechanism which explains this relationship. The two models claim that difficult family financial situation negatively influence the relationship and emotional functioning, disrupting effectual parenting practices. The models also argue that deficiency of economic resources forces parents to center on immediate material needs, therefore, restricting the investment in developmentally reassuring conditions for their children. Past researches have also proposed that patenting styles and parental mental health are essential mechanisms, underpinning the relationship between poverty and low income and behavioral problem of a child. Poverty and low income were connected to uninvolved, unsupportive, and inconsistent styles of parenting and poor mental health of the parents (Kaiser et al, 2017). This argument can be used to explain why most students from poor socioeconomic status are involved in discipline issue. Although the research has demonstrated possibility of exaggeration on number of students from poor economic communities involved in serious indiscipline issues, the above explanation demonstrates a high possibility of a high number of poor family students who have behavioral issues that would result to school indiscipline.

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In a different assessment, Atkins et al. (2002) established that there is enough evidence which demonstrates that urban schools in low-income communities are fighting to manage various stressor related to inner-city living. These include poverty, substance abuse, and community violence, which are overwhelming the ability of school to offer suitable educational programming, despite of diminishing educational and financial resources. In addition, with the welfare reform advent, families and schools have been experiencing unusual pressure with diminishing resources. For instance, deficit of quality after-school programs in communities living in inner-city exacerbates poverty’s impact on children, by augmenting parental burden to offer safety to their children.  There is also high rate of prevalence or disruptive behaviors among children in low-income, urban communities, which is said to be about threefold the national estimates, making it recognized as the most weighty mental health issues in these communities (Atkins et al., 2002).  In this analysis Atkins et al., gives a clear picture of the life of student from low socioeconomic status and problems they encounter during their normal living. Other than poverty, their external environment is considerably unhealthy for children growth, and it thus subject these children to a number of social vices. These vices are likely to put them through hard situation where they will sometimes need to fight for their survival. The experience reduces their sensitivity to the rule of law, and hence making it hard for them to obey simple subjective norms such as respect, in a school environment. This can be used to explain the high rate of discipline suspension among children living in low socioeconomics communities. Their environment can also make them easily misjudged or easily engaged in criminal behaviors, while out of school. Thus, with close police monitoring, it is highly likely for school suspended students from this community to encounter with justice system, especially in the course of the week, while serving their school discipline suspension.  

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Different researches assessing the relationship between school discipline penalties and social economic status demonstrated overrepresentation of minority groups and male gender in school discipline cases. According to Raufu (2017), the school discipline administration creates a concern by minority overrepresentation, particularly students from African-American and Latinos. This can be explained by citing racial discrimination against the minority groups as discussed above. This can also be associated with poor socioeconomic status of minority group communities. Mode, Evans and Zonderman (2016) argue that African Americans stand for a disproportionate United States burden of low education and poverty. The African American poverty rate in the United States is at 26%, though only at around 10% for non-Hispanic Whites. In addition, 15% of African Americans contain education below high school level, while only 8% of non-Hispanic Whites fit in this group (Mode, Evans, & Zonderman, 2016). This simply means that majority of Black Americans fall in the category of people in low socioeconomic status and hence, other than racial discrimination or bias which influences teachers’ judgment on their indiscipline behavior, they also fall among those experience harsher treatment due to poverty. This can be used to explain why African American are overrepresented among students experiencing school suspension due to indiscipline, or those referred to juvenile justice system due to persistent indiscipline or serious cases of indiscipline.

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The issue of indiscipline in school among low socioeconomic students resulting to school-to-prison pipeline can be supported by the cultural capital theory in education. According to Bourdieu, schools privilege the dominant cultural capital. This implies that people from the upper and middle classes are highly likely to succeed since they learn from the school and their parent. On the contrary, people from low class are discriminated and harshly judged and punished by the school as demonstrated in this review, in what appear like a strategy of drawing them out of school. They are then piped to the criminal justice system through school indiscipline criminalization that draws them away from the school and more to their community which is characterized by social vices and crimes. In addition to this, students from low socioeconomic society get little chances of learning from their parents, who are always busy trying to fight economic challenges. Thus, people from low class communities are less likely to succeed due to prejudice at school and lack of parental support. 


School-to-prison pipeline is a metaphor that is highly experienced by student among low income communities, especially from the minority racial groups in the United States. This phenomenon illustrates a situation where school indiscipline punishment creates a path for student to encounter with criminal justice system. This situation was highly propagated by enactment of school indiscipline criminalization where schools are permitted to directly or indirectly involve police for offenses done by students at school. Although the policies were meant to govern all students, literature analysis demonstrates a high level of biasness in judging indiscipline behaviors and offering punishment between students from high social class and those from low social class, especially those of minority racial groups. This situation has increased negative attitude toward school discipline system among students of low socioeconomic status, since it is highly discriminative and used to connect majority of Black American youth to criminal justices. This situation eventually results to lengthy involvement with the criminal justice system and decline in the chances of Black American among other students from low socioeconomic status to complete their education and graduate.

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