How to Fix the School-to-Prison Pipeline

By Christopher Zoukis

We often talk about the need to educate prisoners to better prepare them for life after release. But we also need to look at what happens much earlier – before youth become involved in the criminal justice system. Like so many of America’s social ills, early intervention is key.

That’s exactly what a forthcoming article in the Arizona State Law Journal explores. The article is written by Jason Nance, a professor at the University of Florida Levin School of Law who studies how education law intersects with constitutional rights. The title of his soon-to-be-published article – ‘Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline: Tools for Change’ – captures both the problem and potential solutions.

Making abundant use of social science statistics, Prof. Nance begins by noting the “distinct shift” in recent decades of how teachers and school administrators deal with routine student disciplinary matters. Too often, he argues, relatively minor issues that schools would once have handled internally are now dealt with by summoning the local police – even in the early grades of elementary school, for such minor infractions as tardiness, dress code violations and the like.

While current statistics nationwide are elsuive, this trend to criminalize school discipline is clearly on the rise. According to U.S. Department of Education data for the 2011-2012 school year, public school authorities referred more than a quarter million students to law enforcement, and about 92,000 students were arrested at school.

School suspensions and expulsions are similarly increasing; during the same school year, about 3.45 million students were suspended and 130,000 expelled (actions likely to affect students’ academic performance – linked to the likelihood of incarceration) and to increase the likelihood they’ll drop out of school entirely, get arrested, and land in jail. For high school students, suspensions and expulsions rose from about one student in 13 in the early 1970s to about one in nine. There’s ample data disciplinary actions disproportionately affect minority students, at every level.

Prof. Nance blames a variety of factors for the growth of this school-to-prison pipeline: educators’ bias against minority students or inability or unwillingness to deal with minor disciplinary issues; inadequate funding for school counseling and other support services; the rise of “get-tough-on-crime” attitudes; and state and federal accountability laws that incentivize school administrators to push out potential “problem” students.

He also slams as lacking evidence of practical effectiveness some much-used strategies as zero-tolerance policies bringing suspension or explusion for minor infractions; adopting intrusive school surveillance methods; and adding in-school police as “resource officers” (whose presence has exploded from fewer than 100 officers in the early 1970s to around 19,000 today).

To reverse the trend of schools channeling more students into the criminal justice system, Nance calls for stressing solutions that improve student performance, reduce drop-out rates, and bring lower rates of suspension, expulsion and referrals to law enforcement. He also recommends that if schools feel the need to have in-school “resource officers,” they adopt memos of understanding clearly setting forth limits of their activities.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at, and