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A police officer outside a school.
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New School Year, Same School-to-Prison Pipeline

by Anna Simonton

As a new school year gets underway, debates over the role of police on campus are heating back up. In New York City, activists are decrying a plan to hire more than 800 additional officers to patrol schools. Education officials in Columbus, Ohio, are considering reinstating armed school officers. And Chicago parents and students are trying to maintain momentum for reducing the number of school police, a process that began two years ago.

Cops in classrooms are just one feature of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term that describes a multitude of factors that funnel Black and brown youth into the criminal legal system. To kick off the fall semester, here’s a primer on the rise of the school-to-prison pipeline, its effect on students, and how communities are trying to change course.

Constructing the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Although white education systems have criminalized Black and brown youth in many different ways throughout history, the roots of the modern school-to-prison pipeline are often traced to “zero-tolerance” education policies passed in the 1990s amid a larger wave of tough-on-crime laws. Suspensions and expulsions exploded over the following decades. So did school police: Between 1975 and 2017, the number of public schools in the U.S. with police stationed on-site or regularly patrolling the campus increased from 10 percent to more than 60 percent. With police came a rise in arrest as a form of school discipline.

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 legal system, according to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Exclusionary discipline has not been meted out equally; during the 2017-2018 school year, Black students were suspended and expelled at more than five times the rate of white students. Arrest rates for Black students are comparable in most years. Black students with disabilities are typically disciplined even more disproportionately. Other students of color face similar disparities.

These trends mean that Black and brown students are often criminalized for doing things that historically have landed kids in detention, not handcuffs.

More Police, More Punishment

Across the country, students have been arrested for skipping school, roughhousing, and being “disruptive”—a catchall term used to describe actions ranging from talking back after having a cell phone confiscated to refusing to say the pledge of allegiance. Kids as young as five have been arrested for throwing tantrums. Students have also faced serious civil penalties for acting out. In Illinois, a ProPublica investigation found that police routinely ticketed students for things like shoving, littering, or using offensive language. The tickets come with hefty fines that, left unpaid, lead to mounting consequences.

Less common but especially horrific are the instances of police brutality that arguably would not happen if officers weren’t embedded in schools. Black students have been pepper sprayed, body-slammed, and violently thrown by school police. And even when students aren’t facing arrest or excessive force, they can be subject to aggressive policing tactics and surveillance.

The resources that school districts muster to police students often outweigh those dedicated to counseling, health care, and other support services. A 2019 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that roughly one in five public school students in the U.S. had cops but no social worker at their school. Advocates say prioritizing resources in this way only sets students up to fail and ensures that they’ll face unforgiving and ineffective punishment when they do.

Schools Without Cops

Since 2020, amid the outcry over racist policing and violence following the murder of George Floyd, at least 50 school districts have ended contracts with police departments. Some have implemented alternatives like the “restorative justice coordinators” now on staff in Madison, Wisconsin, public schools. Some large school districts, including those in Los Angeles and Chicago, haven’t cut police out of the equation entirely, but have significantly downsized policing and redirected funding toward more supportive methods of addressing students’ behavioral needs.

The initial outcomes at schools that have eliminated police could encourage others to follow suit. Schools in Portland, Maine, are operating normally after removing police, according to the superintendent. And in Minneapolis, public schools have seen fewer disciplinary measures since replacing police with “unarmed public safety support specialists.”

For some reformers, the focus on school police is part of a broader campaign to do away with exclusionary discipline in all of its forms. The Black Lives Matter at School national coalition has called for an end to zero-tolerance policies. And The Sentencing Project has highlighted the opportunity for states to use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to close the school-to-prison pipeline by embracing restorative justice and trauma-informed practices. So far, 11 states and the District of Columbia have announced plans to use ARPA money to take steps in this direction.

Still, these changes have only come to a fraction of the nearly 14,000 school districts in the U.S. And, eight of the schools that ended contracts with police ultimately backtracked. But while setbacks are common, they can also be galvanizing. New York City advocates recently fought to save restorative justice programs that had been on the chopping block. Now they’re hoping to build off of that momentum to halt the planned expansion of school police, envisioning a day when their kids are welcomed back to school with care, not cops.


In the news


As part of Scalawag’s pop justice newsletter, Sezin Koehler takes a look at copaganda and Ru Paul’s Drag Race. [Sezin Koehler / Scalawag]

As a new school year begins, Frank Ornelas reflects on the horror of watching his son grow up behind bars. “‘Back to school’ especially drives home the fact that, since he was just the age of many high school seniors who are preparing for their transition into adulthood, my son has been forced to watch life through the news, from behind bars,” he writes. [Frank Ornelas / Truthout]

A sexual assault victim has sued the San Francisco Police Department for using the DNA sample she provided to identify her as a burglary suspect. [Tim Stelloh and Erick Mendoza / NBC News]

Incarcerated writer Christina Lynch interviews transgender rights activist Ashley Diamond about their work to protect trans women incarcerated in Georgia prisons. “As a trans woman of color inside a men’s prison, I’ve had to fight [the] same battles for survival and for my humanity as Ashley,” writes Lynch. [Christina Lynch / FilterMag]

ICYMI — from The Appeal

Since the end of a COVID-related zero-bail policy in July, Los Angeles County’s jail population has begun rapidly returning toward pre-pandemic numbers. As Nili Blanck reports, nearly half of these people are being held pretrial—jailed because they can’t pay bail.

Also in LA, Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg reports that the ACLU is seeking federal intervention at the county’s jail booking center after attorneys reported overcrowding, filthy conditions, and inhumane treatment of people with mental illness.

“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” featured reporting by Meg O’Connor and Jerry Iannelli on the ways “Law and Order: SVU” has misrepresented the New York Police Department’s handling of sex crimes.

For more on how the actual “SVU” operates, read Meg’s December story on the NYPD’s troubled Special Victims Division, which has since been announced as the target of a Department of Justice investigation.

And be sure to check out Jerry and Meg’s newsletter column on the role “SVU” and Mariska Hargitay—the actor behind the beloved Olivia Benson character—have played in laundering the reputation of a failing department.

That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to invest in the future of The Appeal, please donate here.

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