School-to-Prison Pipeline and Meaningful Student Involvement

Students at the 2015 SoundOut Student Voice Summer Camp at Cleveland High School in Seattle.
Students at the SoundOut Student Voice Summer Camp.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a social and economic practice unfairly targeting low-income students and students of color out of schools and into incarceration. Meaningful Student Involvement can disrupt this pipeline by transforming learning, teaching and leadership to focus on Student/Adult Partnerships in systemic, structured and strategic ways.

What It Is

Running directly from early childhood learning through whichever point students are pushed out of schools and into the waiting clutches of incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline is a tangible injustice affecting schools today. It primarily affects students of color and low-income students, and is driven by practices including traditional classroom management and zero tolerance policies, both of which unfairly target these specific populations. In-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and school arrests are all markers affecting the youngest students straight through graduation.

What It Does

With the mass introduction of police in public schools starting in the 1990s, more schools and districts adopted zero tolerance policies that pushed students out of schools. Using harsh punitive measures, African American, Latino, American Indian and other students of color, as well as low-income students of all races, were targeted for their behavior in schools. As police enforced increasingly strict policies, students were more frequently sent to juvenile incarceration centers which were privately operated. Done disproportionately across the country, this resulted in some schools using behavior and discipline for their teachable moments, while others simply supported private punishment in public schools

The Role of Meaningful Student Involvement

Feeling unfairly targeted by these policies and practices, students began organizing campaigns nationwide against the school-to-prison pipeline in the 1990s. By the mid-2000s, there was a rush of actions happening nationwide that forced education-focused nonprofits and philanthropic foundations to support these students and launch adult-led efforts to address these challenges as well.

Meaningful Student Involvement allows educators to embrace this struggle from within schools and in their individual classrooms, rather than waiting and relying on external force. Learning new ways of relating to students through Student/Adult Partnerships, educators and administrators in schools are freed from the confines of the pipeline and allowed to embrace restorative justice, among other approaches to Meaningful Student Involvement.

Next Steps

Research shows that there are some definitive next steps in stopping the school-to-prison pipeline. When combined with Meaningful Student Involvement, they include:

  1. Using positive behavior interventions and supports that position students as constant drivers, planners, trainers and evaluators of school behavior and learning through behavior.
  2. Students studying and creating annual reports on the total number of disciplinary actions that push students out of the classroom based on gender, race, economic status and abilities.
  3. Students and adults creating strategic and deliberate agreements with courts and law enforcement to limit arrests at school and the use of restraints, including mace and handcuffs.
  4. Position students to co-write and distribute simple explanations of behavior issues and school responses to every student in order to ensure fairness.
  5. Students and adults work together to Create appropriate limits on the use of law enforcement and severe punishment in public schools.
  6. Train students and teachers on the use of positive behavior supports for at-risk students, and support each in administering these support.
  7. Ensure ongoing fiscal investment, cultural transformation and strategic implementation over years through training, tools and technical assistance.

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