The impact of out of school Suspensions-The School to Prison Pipeline

Posted: July 21, 2014 by tinamaschi in Uncategorized

Written By Donald Thompson
Graduate Student at Fordham University

Background and Scope of the Problem

In the process of writing this blog commentary I came across at least ten years of research highlighting the fact that out of school suspensions, for the most part, do not improve student behavior and academic performance. The latest data suggests that students who are suspended outside of school run the risk of missing out on valuable instruction and are more likely to fall behind, drop out and eventually enter the juvenile delinquency or criminal justice system. In my own work with students I have witnessed the negative impact that numerous out of school suspensions can have on their self-esteem and trajectory. In the United States there is currently a growing movement revolving around finding alternatives to out of school suspensions as a measure to deal more effectively with school discipline problems. The need to create new policies and legislation to improve educational outcomes and bring about more awareness and accountability on this issue is being heavily debated in communities and school districts across the United States.

Suspensions Perpetuate the School to Prison Pipeline

The School to Prison Pipeline speaks to the various ways that local, state and federal education and public safety policies operate to push students out of school and into the criminal justice system. The pipeline disproportionately impacts youth of color and youth with disabilities. The historical inequities in areas such as school discipline, policing practices, and high-stakes testing contribute to the pipeline. The School to Prison Pipeline operates both directly and indirectly. The practices engaged in by schools directly sends students into the pipeline through zero tolerance policies that involve the police in minor incidents, which too often lead to arrests, juvenile detention referrals, and even incarceration. The school systems indirectly push students into the criminal justice system by excluding them from school through suspension, expulsion, discouragement and high stakes testing requirements. Suspensions, often the first stop along the pipeline, play a crucial role in pushing students from the school system and into the criminal justice system. The research shows a clear correlation between suspensions and both low achievement and dropping out of school altogether. The research also shows a link between dropping out of school and incarceration later in life. The students who have been suspended are three times more likely to drop out of school by the 10th grade than students who have never been suspended. The dropping out in turn triples the likelihood that a person will be incarcerated later in life (

Case Example

RD currently attends an alternative public high school in his hometown that was established for students with problem behavior but he is not in special education. According to J his mother, RD has been having behavior problems in school such as not following rules and challenging teacher’s authority since he was in first grade. J says that she has lost count as to the number of times RD has been suspended out of school for misbehavior. J says that RD is currently failing most of his classes in the ninth grade and that she has been getting a lot of phone calls from his teachers regarding RD’s disruptive behavior, and him not doing his school work. J says that she is becoming fed up with RD’s defiant and disruptive behavior at home, his fighting and bad grades in school. RD acknowledges the fact that he is not doing well in school and says he is having serious behavior problems with his mother at home. RD so far has been suspended from school several times this year for threatening a teacher and fighting another student. As a result of his misbehavior at home and in school this year RD spent two weeks in residential treatment and one night in a hospital program for overnight psychological evaluation. RD has stated on a few occasions that he doesn’t like to attend the classes of certain teachers in his school because of the negative history he has with them. RD also said that he feels like he is judged only based on his past behavior or what school personnel have been told about him.


The adoption of zero tolerance policies that mandate predetermined consequences for breaking rules, regardless of the circumstances involved were initially designed to make society and schools safe. The best way to prevent serious violence at school according to this theory was to ban any and all weapons or threats of violence, and to accept no excuses. The fact is that African-American male youth are generally perceived and by American society and people in authority due to social conditioning, miseducation and negative images projected in mainstream media as being more disruptive, rebellious, threatening and potentially violent. The available historical data and the latest expulsion and dropout statistics both speak to this reality. In light of this perception, a harsher and stricter approach in the form of policy has been adopted and applied to young black men in order to address the issue of maintaining safety. The misdirection of policy and methods also speak to an existing power differential between two distinct groups. The group power dynamic can be explained as the “majority” verses the “minority” or the “enfranchised” verses the “disenfranchised” or school administrators and law enforcement verses students. In the case of RD his anger and sense of powerlessness has been internalized over the years so he feels like school and life in general is a no-win situation, because he is punished and very few people believe his story whenever he attempts to express or externalize his feelings of unhappiness and discontentment. The increase in the use of law enforcement and inflexible zero tolerance policies to address school related issues speaks to a paradigm in America where young people are increasingly being viewed as suspects and treated as criminals by school officials and law enforcement. The truth is that these policies, and the school administrators who enforce them, produce young people who are ignorant of the rights they possess as American citizens. The harsh treatment of young people socializes them into believing that they have no true rights and that government authorities who possess total power can violate their constitutional rights whenever they see fit In this case, the need of an institution as it is part of a social system prioritizes its need for social control and safety as taking precedence over the rights of children or students. In the process of trying to insure school and public safety, research shows that this policy and practice has actually done the opposite of what it intended. The adoption of a one-size-fits-all approach has been unsuccessful and created more serious political and social problems.

Human Rights

The Declaration of The rights of the child that was adopted by the UN General Assembly Resolution 1386 (XIV) on December 10th 1959 and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights established in 1966 are two documents that outline and define the basic or minimum standards as it relates to respecting children’s fundamental rights and providing them with across the board legal protections. The documents were written to establish uniformity and consistency when it comes to deciding on issues or policies affecting or pertaining to the rights of children. The documents advocate for and outline the importance of protecting the well-being of all children and their overall development ( It would serve policy makers, school administrators and law enforcement personnel well to read and become more familiar with these two documents. The reading and incorporation of the ideas contained in these two documents can help to transform policy and practice starting and focusing on developing social policy from the inside out verses the current way it is developed from the outside in. (

Prevention or Intervention Response

According to 2014 data there are at least ten to twelve thousand schools across the country that are now trying to deal with the suspension and dropout problems by implementing something referred to as positive Behavior Supports (PBIS), an evidence-based, data-driven approach to reducing disciplinary incidents, increasing school safety, improving attendance rates and improving academic performance. The Implementing of PBIS has been shown to improve behavioral outcomes and it helps keep students and teacher safe and productive inside classrooms. The PBS approach is based on the premise that continual teaching, modeling, recognizing and rewarding of positive student behavior will reduce unnecessary discipline and promote a climate of greater productivity, safety and learning. The PBIS schools apply a multi-tiered approach to prevention, using disciplinary data and principles of behavior analysis to develop school-wide, targeted and individualized interventions and supports to improve school climate. The PBIS approach uses alternative disciplinary strategies such as behavior contracts, positive incentives, after-school detention, loss of privileges and in-school suspension. ( I have advocated for and utilized some of these strategies like positive incentives and behavior contracts in my own work with students. The goal is first and foremost to keep as many students as possible motivated, invested and engaged in learning as opposed to creating an environment where they eventually become disinterested and disengaged. The effect that a school discipline policy can have on whether or not students feel safe and supported, embraced or disconnected and discouraged cannot be ignored. Teaching and modeling to students what behaviors are expected and acknowledging them for displaying these has been proven to be a more effective alternative than punitive approaches to discipline ( A review of the research on PBIS effectiveness stated that there was a 90% reduction rate in problem behavior in over 50% of the studies; the problem behavior stopped completely in over 26% of the studies (


The U.S. Department of Education and The Department of Justice back in January of this year (2014) released a set of guidelines directed at reforming school discipline nationwide. For the first time, the federal government has explicitly acknowledged the effects of racially disproportionate school discipline and that current practices are in violation of federal civil rights law. The guidance prescribes measures to address inequities, by increasing training and requiring protocols that will limit the involvement of law-enforcement personnel, including school safety officers, in school disciplinary matters. The New York Civil Liberties Union in 2010 filed a class-action lawsuit against the state challenging illegal arrests and excessive force in New York City public schools. The new federal guideline links zero-tolerance discipline with disparate impact, a primary concern of the NYCLU lawsuit, and establishes that discriminatory discipline violates federal civil rights law (Titles IV and VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act). It also demands that schools be held accountable for the actions of police and other law-enforcement personnel, and questions the efficacy of policies that punish truancy with out-of-school suspensions (

Policy Advocacy and Reforms
The Student Safety Act

The Student Safety Act mandates quarterly reporting by the NYPD on arrests and summonses (tickets) issued by officers in the NYPD’s School Safety Division. These data are broken down by penal code, patrol borough, gender, race and age. The law also requires biannual reporting by the New York City Department of Education on suspensions and expulsions. Suspensions are reported by school, discipline code infraction, age, race, gender, grade, special education status and English language proficiency. The Student Safety Act is the result of a four-year campaign led by a coalition of community-based, advocacy and legal organizations who saw a serious need for a transparency bill that would hold the NYPD and DOE accountable for their school safety and disciplinary policies. The numbers have shown that there are extreme racial disparities within the education and juvenile justice system. For instance, in the 2011-2012 school years, more than 95 percent of school-based arrests were of black and Latino students. In addition, black students accounted for about 30 percent of public school enrollment but more than 50 percent of suspensions. The NYCLU and other advocates have used this data to push for alternatives to arrests and zero tolerance policies in schools. In the spring of 2007, the New York Civil Liberties Union convened a group of community-based and advocacy organizations called the Student Safety Coalition. The main objective was to pass a transparency bill, called the Student Safety Act, which would require quarterly reporting by the Department of Education and the NYPD to the City Council on school safety issues, including incidents involving arrest, expulsion and suspension of students.
The Coalition lobbied city council members, held rallies and press conferences, and negotiated with the DOE and NYPD on the content of the bill. The Coalition worked very hard to elevate the voices of affected students, their parents and concerned educators. After nearly four years of campaigning, the Student Safety Act was passed in December 2010 and signed into law by Mayor Bloomberg in January 2011(

Recommendations for Advocacy, Policy Reform and Coalition Building

In New York State there currently are a number of groups and organizations who are already working to increase public awareness on this issue and have been advocating for local and national policy reform. For anyone who wants to get involved I would suggest visiting this link to see a list of organizations that are currently engaged in this work. ( The fact that it was mainly through the internet and social media that I was able to read, research and compile the necessary data to substantiate “The School to Prison Pipeline” as a legitimate issue that is deserving of national attention, speaks to the importance of its use as an informational and public awareness tool. Social Media is one of the new ways that people share information, important issues, projects or images that we like or feel passionate about with the world. The fact that people can like it, re-tweet it, comment on it and share it with hundreds, potentially millions of others allows the audience a much easier way to become engaged and involved (

Resources on the school to prison pipeline

New York Civil Liberties Union-
NAACP Legal Defense Fund-
Children’s Defense Fund-

Critical Self Reflection

In doing this assignment I really became even more aware of how pervasive this issue of out of school suspension leading to the prison pipeline really is. The statistics and the historical magnitude of exclusionary practice are such that it really requires a total system analysis in order to comprehend all the damage that has been done to people’s lives and how to correct it. I intend to study and learn more about both Education and Civil Rights law to better understand the social and legal context in which this battle for equal opportunity and access has and is being waged and fought. One strategy I can use to further develop my knowledge and skill is to volunteer some of my time with an organization perhaps one from among those that I mentioned on my list that is involved in research, reform and advocacy efforts in order to get some direct hands on experience.

Post powerpoints and/or any other additional resources. Must see! Must see!


1.New York Civil Liberties Union-
4.New York Civil Liberties Union-

5.Huffington Post- schools_b_819594.html.

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