Breaking the Cycle: Understanding the School-to-Prison Pipeline

We live in a time of technological advancement. From electric-powered vehicles to artificial intelligence in the past few decades, we’ve learned so much about the brain and its incredible capabilities. We expect these advances to improve the lives of Oklahoma’s kids. When Oklahomans drop our children off at school, we hope that schools will be able to tap into their massive capacity so that our children can continue to push our society forward. However, despite all of the advancements around us, our education system continues to hold on to an outdated model. Instead of propelling us forward, this model is holding our children back and putting far too many of them on the school-to-prison pipeline.

Defining the School-to-Prison Pipeline:

The school-to-prison pipeline refers to a disturbing trend where students, particularly those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds (ethnic minorities, LGBTQIA+, and students with disabilities), are pushed out of schools and funneled into the criminal legal  system. I firmly believe that most people get into the difficult profession of education to love, grow, and develop students, not to push them into prison. Despite the best intentions of our educators why does the school-to-prison pipeline still exist?  The answer is a raft of outdated policies failing far too many of our kids.

Zero-Tolerance Policies

Zero-tolerance policies were first established in the 1980s during the Reagan administration. What started off as a way to address violence, weapons, and drugs in schools, zero-tolerance policies have now expanded to be used for more subjective issues such as disrespect, talking back, and public displays of affection. In an attempt to reduce the occurrence of the above infractions education administrators can, and sometimes are forced to, give swift and severe consequences such as long-term suspensions and expulsions. As a result, in Oklahoma, Native American and African American children are overrepresented when it comes to both out-of-school suspensions and expulsions due to zero-tolerance policies. But many communities across the country are taking note that rather than making schools safer, they are perpetuating the problem. But why is that?

School climate and culture:

This outdated education model is built on compliance and assimilation, rather than connection and inclusion. The data is clear. There is a correlation between school climate (the relationships between students, parents, and staff) and felt safety within schools by students and teachers. Schools that are less resourced but foster better relationships have better discipline outcomes. Which, should not be as surprising as it may sound.  Studies show that relationships amongst students and between students and adults are important in a school community. In fact, it can be the healing factor for children who experience trauma in their homes or their community. However, it is not valued as much as it should be. Schools are accredited on many things: training standards, facility standards, board and governance, curriculum, and state-testing. However, there is nowhere in the standards of how adults in the building should connect and value the autonomy of our young people. Oklahoma needs schools and teachers versed in best practices around school discipline and building community. Schools discipline students to gain compliance from students rather than for the student’s growth and development. This is counter to how their brains actually develop.

Brain development

Educators get into the profession to love, grow, and support students to become thriving adults. Educators attempt to make school safe and structured with the use of zero-tolerance policies, suspensions, and expulsions. This is based on the theory that  young scholars will reflect on their punishment and make better decisions next time. This is how the school-to-prison pipeline thrives despite our educators’ best intentions. Neurological research proves that traditional punishment does not have the impact we hope that it will. In fact, it heightens the problems we are trying to avoid. Traditional punishment for children (and I would argue for adults as well) activates the protective survival system in their bodies and brains. Because we are communal creatures our brains know that isolation threatens our survival. Students may comply and follow the rules pertaining to their punishment next time, but it is not because they learned their lesson and are now wiser. It is out of survival. Their anxiety, which lives in their amygdala, is driving their compliance. And, when their amygdala is activated for too long it has long-term detrimental impacts physically, emotionally, and socially. The research shows that when children feel like they are constantly under the threat of being separated and isolated, they may become more hyperactive, anxious, or even defiant. This negative discipline impact is even more pronounced for children from historically marginalized communities. These outdated practices are making the problem of school discipline worse.

Restorative Justice

The use of restorative justice and restorative practices in schools has been shown through research to lower the need for suspensions and expulsions. The Restorative Justice Institute of Oklahoma (RJIOK) is a leader and pioneer in the field of restorative justice in Oklahoma. RJIOK defines restorative justice as a communal approach to dealing with harm that focuses on relationships over rules. Rooted in Indigenous cultural practices around the world, restorative justice centers on the person who has experienced harm by prioritizing their needs and their healing. The reason why restorative justice is so impactful in schools is that it challenges adults and students to get curious about the unmet needs behind harmful behaviors and foster conversations that lead to creative solutions. Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is a pioneer in their efforts to implement restorative justice programs district-wide. In addition to reducing their Black/White discipline gap by 6 points in one year alone, OUSD suspends African American students 40% less for disruption/willful defiance. In addition to the quantitative data, research shows qualitatively that restorative justice programs are improving school climates and relationships between students and adults. In addition, they are supporting youth leadership development. Restorative justice doesn’t force students to just correct their behaviors, it challenges students and staff to learn from their mistakes. Rather than treating students’ behaviors as a source of shame that can lead to isolation, restorative justice sees a student’s behaviors as road maps to understand what they need to thrive.

How do we move towards restorative justice in more schools? In full transparency implementing restorative justice in schools is very timely, costly, and difficult. But so is the school-to-prison pipeline. And it’s not just on our educators to make this change. Educators need us as community members to understand restorative justice, practice it at home with our children, and advocate for education reforms that allow educators to be able to be trained and equipped to practice restorative justice. By understanding the contributing factors, consequences, and available solutions, we can collectively work towards creating inclusive, supportive, and equitable learning environments that uplift and empower all students. It is our collective responsibility to break this harmful cycle and ensure that every student has the opportunity to thrive, grow, and achieve their full potential.