The School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Criminalization of Kids

Original illustration by Kit Mills

By Isabelle Pierre, age 13 and IndyKids staff

Kids face so many challenges while growing up, from concentrating in class to dealing with confusing emotions, bullying from peers and a huge amount of stress. It’s hard to imagine, but for many, these struggles may not just earn you detention, they may result in your arrest and ultimately land you in prison. 

“Our findings show that early [harsh punishment] of school misbehavior causes increases in adult crime—that there is, in fact, a school-to-prison pipeline.”

Researchers from a July 2021 study on the school-to-prison pipeline in Education Next.

According to CBS News analysis, more than 700 elementary school children in the United States were arrested during the 2017-2018 school year alone. Some reports show that kids as young as 5 have been pinned to the ground and handcuffed. The school-to-prison pipeline—a phenomenon that funnels kids out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system—is a racial justice crisis: Students pushed out of school are disproportionately Black and brown. 

The pipeline traces back to zero-tolerance policies introduced in 1994 where minor offenses and mistakes could result in suspension or expulsion from school, and often resulted in arrest when school resource officers were called. However, these punishments are not given out equally. During the 2017-2018 school year, Black students were suspended and expelled at five times the rate of their white peers. Black students who also had some kind of disability are often even more harshly punished.

Suspension, expulsion and arrest all fall under the umbrella of “exclusionary discipline.” These sorts of responses increase the likelihood that students will fall behind, drop out or wind up in the criminal justice system, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.  

Santa Monica Police – School Resource Officer, image from Wikimedia Commons

Juvenile recidivism means that once a student gets in trouble with the law, it becomes more likely that they will end up in prison again in the future. “Our findings show that early [harsh punishment] of school misbehavior causes increases in adult crime—that there is, in fact, a school-to-prison pipeline,” said researchers in a July 2021 study on the school-to-prison pipeline in Education Next. According to a 2015 report from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the highest reported recidivism rate for young offenders was 76% within three years, and 84% within five years.

The American Civil Liberties Union reported in 2019 that one in five public school students in the U.S. has cops in their school but no social worker, meaning that when a child is acting out, the only option their teacher has is to get the police involved instead of handling the situation by assessing the student’s needs. Restorative justice is an approach and practice which encourages acknowledging accountability for mistakes you’ve made and learning the impact it had on others. 

Principal Claire St. Amand of Bayview Elementary spoke with the Jacksonville Public Education Fund about the restorative practices she has implemented in her school. Every morning classes form circles, and teachers check in with their students to start the day on a positive note. “If you have a positive relationship with your kids,” explained St. Amand, “they’re going to work for you, and therefore their behavior is going to improve, their work is going to improve.”

While around 50 school districts have ended contracts with police departments since 2020, with some implementing alternatives like “restorative justice coordinators” now on staff in Madison and Wisconsin public schools, other states like New York have recently added 850 new “school safety agents” to their schools, and Columbus, Ohio, is considering reinstating armed school officers. Investing in counselors and restorative justice coordinators will help students express themselves more and find logical solutions to better understand their own actions, which could ultimately keep more kids in classrooms and out of prisons.


  • Disproportionately: Too large or too small in comparison with something else
  • Zero-tolerance: Always giving the most severe punishment possible when a rule is broken
  • Expulsion: When a student is permanently removed from a school system
  • Juvenile recidivism: Refers to when young people are convicted of a crime, serve their time, then later end up convicted and incarcerated again for another offense
  • Accountability: The acceptance of responsibility for your own actions

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