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Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline

By Bekky Baker, Program Manager

It’s time to talk about the school to prison pipeline, but first some context. Back in 2020, IJPC signed on to the Young Activist Coalition’s Fix Our School’s Campaign as a coalition partner. The Fix Our Schools Campaign is a student led, informed, and guided coalition created to tackle the injustices percolating within classrooms. As a coalition member, IJPC finds it is imperative to stand behind and take guidance from the voices of those most impacted by policies as we work towards racial equity in our communities. Part of the vision YAC is working towards includes removing police officers from Cincinnati Public Schools and investing in restorative justice practices rather than punitive ones.

“My name is Bella Gordo. I am 17 years old, a high school junior, and the president of Cincinnati’s Young Activists Coalition. Our mission is to put an end to policing and punitive discipline in Cincinnati Public Schools. And we need your help.” [Read more.]

As you read the words of Bella Gordo, President of the Young Activist’s Coalition, I’d like to share some statistics and insights that shed light on how police officers in schools contribute to the school to prison pipeline. Zero-tolerance policies in schools began cropping up in the 1980-90s as tough on crime initiatives swept across the nation. These policies mandate predetermined consequences for certain types of behavior regardless of the rationale or context. Many of these punitive punishments include expulsion or suspension. The rise in zero tolerance policies coincided with the rise of School Resource Officer programs or police presence in schools in the 1990s. These zero tolerance policies account for 70 percent of the “in-school” arrests or referrals to law enforcement handed down to black and latino students. 

Zero tolerance policies hand out punitive punishments for bringing drugs to school, damaging school property, and fighting, but they also handle more nuanced infractions like disrespect. According to the ACLU, students who are suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation, for example disrespect, are nearly three times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year. Some might point to higher rates of involvement in misbehavior or socioeconomic status as the reasoning behind the disparities, but research shows that white students are disciplined for objective behaviors, such as smoking, vandalism, skipping class or cursing, while black students are disciplined more for subjective behaviors, such as disrespect, defying authority, excessive noise, or making threats. Students, through suspension and school punishment, can then be directly referred to the juvenile justice system from school or to the police officer working in their building. We have streamlined the path from school to prison, in part, by allocating funding to pay police officers to operate within schools. However, there is no evidence that supports the notion that police officers make schools safer. 

Suspension and expulsion result in high rates of learning loss. This is all a problem because black and brown students are twice as likely to not graduate as compared to white students and 68 percent of all males in state and federal prison do not have high school diplomas. By allowing cops to be in our schools, we allow them to do what they know how to do best – detain and arrest, not counsel, not problem solve and not mediate conflict. There are 14 million children who are in a school with a police officer without access to a counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker. We think we can change these statistics to create more opportunities and Fix Our Schools.