In 1960, 6-year-old Ruby Bridges became the first African-American to desegregate an elementary school. Even though she lived a few blocks from William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana, federal marshals had to escort her because of angry segregationist mobs that gathered in front of the school.
Fast-forward several decades later, law enforcement officers are acting in a very different capacity. Instead of leading children safely into schools, police officers are escorting them out due to “zero-tolerance” disciplinary policies. As a result, children are funneled into the juvenile and criminal justice system causing the doors to academic opportunities to be shut. This funneling has created the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which is a combination of harsh school policies and an increased role of law enforcement in schools.
The “school-to-prison pipeline’ is a growing epidemic in our society. The base of the problem is the increased use of punitive measures, such as suspensions, expulsions and school-based arrests, to deal with students’ misbehavior. Furthermore, these “zero-tolerance” policies – which constantly interject the criminal justice system into schools—are being used as routine disciplinary action for students that usually land them in the principle’s office instead of a police precinct. This results in vast numbers of students being pushed out of school and into prisons and jails.
Sadly, statistics have shown that these policies target Hispanic and black students, as well as students with a history of poverty, abuse and neglect. As a result, these students are being disciplined more harshly and more frequently, which makes them more prone to drop out and to become entangled in the criminal justice system. This transforms schools from a place of learning into a dangerous pathway to prison.
This growing epidemic is more than an education crisis; it is also a criminal justice crisis. School administrators should understand that schools are safe havens for many students. Instead of passing off routine student discipline to law enforcement, they should start to assume the responsibility. In the long run, our nation will feel and see the dire consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline. We cannot teach students who are not in school. If we continue to funnel them to prison, we are forgetting that today’s youth are tomorrow’s leaders.