Redirecting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Most prisoners have two things in common: They come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and they're high-school dropouts.
Repeated suspensions can lead to this. (Photo: Nevele Osteog/Creative Commons)
Aug 11, 2011

America’s prison-industrial complex is unlike any other in the world. U.S. prisons cost taxpayers more than $32 billion per year, and house 25 percent of the world’s inmate population.

Most prisoners have two things in common: They come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and they're high-school dropouts.

Numerous studies demonstrate a connection between underfunded public schools serving poor and minority children and the criminal justice system: Kids who experience failure in school have a higher chance of ending up behind bars.

“We have produced a larger and more costly prison system than any country in the world,” says Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, “populated primarily by high-school dropouts on whom we would not spend $10,000 a year when they were in school, but we will spend more than $40,000 a year when they are in prison—a prison system that is now directly devouring the money we should be spending on education.”

Stopping this vicious cycle is the focus of a new federal initiative devoted to juvenile delinquency prevention.

But while the government researches the problem, students in Baltimore and Missouri are already benefiting from solutions. Educators there found creative ways to reroute school pipelines away from incarceration and toward graduation.


Last month the Council of State Governments Justice Center released findings from a six-year study  of one million Texas seventh graders.

Almost 60 percent were suspended or expelled at least once between 7th and 12th grade.

Of the students disciplined 11 or more times, 59 percent did not graduate from high school on time, and 50 percent came in contact with the juvenile justice system.

Numerous studies point to the same troubling pattern: When school officials rely on suspensions and expulsions to curb bad behavior, they increase the odds of troubled students falling behind in their coursework, dropping out of school, and ending up behind bars.

That’s why the city of Baltimore revamped its discipline policy. Beginning in the 2006-07 school year, school administrators could no longer suspend students for more than five days without permission from the central office.

The district’s code of conduct was revised to provide principals with a wider range of disciplinary options listing suspension as a last resort. And the city embarked on a three-year data analysis process where principals met weekly with central office staff to review ongoing behavioral issues.

Baltimore’s results have been overwhelmingly positive. The number of suspension events decreased by 42 percent, and the dropout rate declined from 9 percent in 2006-07 to 4 percent in 2009-10.

Fewer suspensions means that at-risk kids get more instructional time, and are less likely to be pushed out of the classroom and into the hands of the juvenile justice system. However, discipline reform alone won’t prevent students from becoming disengaged with school and exiling themselves.


Kristen Pelster is the principal of Ridgewood Middle School in Arnold, Missouri. When she joined the staff 11 years ago, the school was known for being the worst in the district. Fewer than 7 percent of students were proficient in math, and only 30 percent were proficient in reading. Walls were covered with graffiti, and police officers were needed full-time to deal with violence and drugs.

Since then, Ridgewood has become an award-winning school. Discipline referrals dropped from 3,000 per year to 300, and about 70 percent of students are now proficient in math and reading.

Pelster and her staff changed the life course of their students with an intense focus on character building and emotional well-being. Kids attended a leadership class every day, and a character council met weekly to discuss concerns brewing on campus. Student groups were formed to deal with issues like bullying and eating disorders.

"This has been transformational for our school," Pelster told an audience this week at the U.S. Department of Education Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools' national conference. The message she and her staff shared with students was simple: "You don't have to take what life has given you and let it defeat you."

Photo: Nevele Osteog/Creative Commons via Flickr
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