Lacking resources, facing incentives to push out low-performing students, and responding to a handful of highly-publicized school shootings, schools have embraced zero-tolerance policies that automatically impose severe punishment regardless of circumstances. Under these policies, students have been expelled for bringing nail clippers or scissors to school. Rates of suspension have increased dramatically in recent years—from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million in 2000and have been most dramatic for children of color.

Youth who become involved in the juvenile justice system are often denied procedural protections in the courts; in one state, up to 80% of court-involved children do not have lawyers. Students who commit minor offenses may end up in secured detention if they violate boilerplate probation conditions prohibiting them from activities like missing school or disobeying teachers.

Students pushed along the pipeline find themselves in juvenile detention facilities, many of which provide few, if any, educational services. Students of color—who are far more likely than their white peers to be suspended, expelled, or arrested for the same kind of conduct at school —and those with disabilities are particularly likely to travel down this pipeline.

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Overly harsh disciplinary policies push students down the pipeline and into the juvenile justice system. Suspended and expelled children are often left unsupervised and without constructive activities; they also can easily fall behind in their coursework, leading to a greater likelihood of disengagement and drop-outs. All of these factors increase the likelihood of court involvement.
As harsh penalties for minor misbehavior become more pervasive, schools increasingly ignore or bypass due process protections for suspensions and expulsions. The lack of due process is particularly acute for students with special needs, who are disproportionately represented in the pipeline despite the heightened protections afforded to them under law.

Damon Hewitt on the ‘School to Prison’ Pipeline  was originally published on

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