The School-to-Prison Pipeline, Part I: An introduction

Sep 24, 2019

What is the school-to-prison pipeline? What does it look like in Western New York, and what’s being done about it? A joint series from WBFO’s Education and Racial Equity desks is delving into those questions and more.


The phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” is one we hear all the time. The issue even took center stage during the first round of Democratic presidential debates in July.

“I believe you can draw a straight line from slavery through Jim Crow through the banking and the redlining to the mass incarceration that we were talking about on this stage a few minutes ago,” said Colorado Senator Michael Bennet.

“But you know what other line I can draw? Eighty-eight percent of the people in our prisons dropped out of high school. Let's fix our school system and maybe we can fix the prison pipeline that we have.”

Most studies estimate the rate of incarcerated people who have not received a high school diploma at somewhere between 65-74%. And while Bennet didn't qualify for the most recent Democratic debate, bigger name candidates like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke are all proposing ways to combat the school-to-prison pipeline. So, what does this phrase mean exactly?

Racial disparities in the American juvenile and criminal justice systems are reinforced by the school-to-prison pipeline.
Credit JoshuaDavisPhotography/Flickr (CC BY-SA 4.0)

A 2015 report by AJ+ and The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that focuses on the criminal justice system, summed it up as “a term that describes how American kids get pushed out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”

The push out often starts with zero-tolerance policies that result in harsh punishments like out-of-school suspensions.

“There’s extensive evidence linking student suspensions to worse long-term educational and life outcomes,” Executive Director of The Education Trust—New York Ian Rosenblum told WBFO.

Not only do students miss instruction time when they get suspended, the effects of the punishment compound throughout their educational career.

“[After a suspension], we could see that that student is held to lower expectations, that that student is not given educational opportunity and support, and that that student is not given all of the educational opportunities that they need to succeed in school and beyond,” Rosenblum said.

Jill D’Angelo is an associate professor of criminal justice at SUNY Buffalo State specializing in juvenile justice.
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

That’s a problem because, just like Bennet said in the debate, there is a connection between education and crime.

“The one factor that we know—I sound like I’m in a courtroom, but beyond a shadow of a doubt, really—that reduces someone’s likelihood of recidivism or getting involved in crime, period, is education,” said Jill D’Angelo, an associate professor of criminal justice at SUNY Buffalo State.

Of course, Bennet was also right about how African Americans and Latinx are disproportionately caught up in the criminal justice system. Together, African Americans and Hispanics and/or Latinos made up half of the U.S. prisoners in 2017, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, though they represent only a combined 32% of the general population. African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites, according to the NAACP, and that racial disparity is reinforced by the school-to-prison pipeline.

New York State Senator Velmanette Montgomery and Jasmine Gripper, legislative director and statewide education advocate for the Alliance for Quality Education, spoke to WCNY’s Capitol Pressroom in June about how students of color are disproportionately punished.

“It ends up being that you talk back or you don’t listen or some other non-criminal behavior, you’re just automatically tossed out of school,” said Sen. Montgomery, who represents a Brooklyn district.

“When a student is white, they’re often met with a stern talking to [or] after school some sort of punishment, but nothing that actually pushes them out of school,” Gripper said. “But on the other hand, Black students are getting the most severe punishment, which is often some sort of long-term suspension.”

Gripper also laid out some of the main findings of the June 2019 report by AQE and the Public Policy and Education Fund of New York that sparked the Capitol Pressroom interview: Black students are five times more likely to be suspended than their white peers in New York City and four times more likely across the rest of the state.

"Stolen Time," a 2018 report by The New York Equity Coalition, found significant racial disparities in suspension rates in Erie County.
Credit The New York Equity Coalition

Western New York is no exception. During the 2016-2017 school year, Buffalo Public Schools suspended more than 30.7% of Black male students—nearly one in three—according to a 2018 report called “Stolen Time” by The New York Equity Coalition. About one in five of all Black students were suspended compared to about one of every 12 white students.

The EdTrust—NY conducted the data analysis for the report.

“Those disparities in how schools suspend students have immediate and lifelong impacts on the students who are suspended,” Rosenblum said.

“It’s also really critical to note, though, that this is not just a Buffalo challenge. It’s really a statewide challenge and it’s a challenge in all types of school districts. In suburban districts in Erie County, for example, Black students represented just 5% of suburban enrollment but more than 20% of the students who the schools suspended at least once.”

The Buffalo school board, for its part, has said that reducing out of school suspensions is one of its highest priorities. The district is implementing restorative justice practices to work toward that goal, including a pilot program at PS #43 Lovejoy Discovery School, which WBFO will report on later in this series.

Experts say reducing suspensions must be a key part of disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline because research shows that being suspended just once in ninth grade doubles the likelihood that a student will drop out of high school. And high school dropouts are 47 times more likely to be incarcerated than their peers who complete a college degree, according to the AQE June 2019 report.

But D’Angelo said it’s not fair to place all the blame on schools.

“It’s obvious that it’s there,” she said, speaking of the pipeline. “It’s obvious that kids who don’t finish school are much more likely to get involved in delinquency and then, of course, become adult offenders... but how do we help the schools?”

“We’re blaming the schools, and it’s not that they’re not at fault,” she continued. “If we’re not giving the schools the money and the resources and the training to enforce policies, create policies and enforce them, then how can we blame them as much?”

D’Angelo also said home life and parent involvement are critical to addressing student behavior and recidivism.

Rosenblum views the school-to-prison pipeline differently.

“The reason the term is powerful and important is because it reinforces the incredible role of schools,” he said. It’s also not an issue of how much money schools have to throw at the problem. In fact, “Stolen Time” found that wealthier school districts, or low-need districts, have the biggest racial disparities in suspension rates.

At the same time, high-need school districts in the “Big 4” urban districts of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers had the highest overall rates of suspensions.

“It’s a combination of the expectations that a school district sets for itself and for its students, and the support that the school district is able to bring to bear for things like restorative practices and for ensuring a safe and productive school culture with high expectations academically for all students,” Rosenblum said. “It’s a both/and.”

Tune in to Morning Edition all week for the rest of WBFO’s series on the school-to-prison pipeline.