You are here

Dropout, Push-Out, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

What is the “school-to-prison pipeline”?

"Schools should be encouraging intervention and prevention over harsh, one-size-fits-all discipline strategies that may lead to student dropout or student push-out."

The school-to-prison pipeline refers to policies and practices that push students, particularly the most vulnerable and at-risk, out of the classroom and into the juvenile and criminal justice system.

What impact do bullying prevention and other school safety policies have on the school-to-prison pipeline?

In recent years, bullying and its impact on youth have received nationwide attention. However, some policies intended to reduce bullying have had the adverse effect of pushing students into the school-to-prison pipeline. For instance, disciplinary approaches to bullying like “zero tolerance” and “three strikes” policies often mandate harsh discipline like suspension or expulsion regardless of the severity of the offense. These approaches, although intended to make schools safer, often end up criminalizing youth and pushing them out of school and into the juvenile justice system.

Who is affected by the school-to-prison pipeline?

Federal data collection efforts have routinely illustrated that the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately impacts youth of color and students with disabilities. A growing body of research also has found that the school-to-prison pipeline is affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. Compounding the problem for LGBT youth, GLSEN research has consistently found that LGBT youth experience higher rates of victimization in schools, which may expose them to greater contact with school discipline systems.

How does the school-to-prison pipeline work in practice?

Research has shown that youth of color, youth with disabilities, and LGBT youth are more likely to be punished more severely for the same offense than their peers. For instance, one student may get a warning for bullying behavior while another may get detention or suspension for the same bullying behavior.

What should schools be doing to address the school-to-prison pipeline?

School climate concerns not only bullying, but also discrimination, criminalization and disparate discipline. We believe that students and educators need to tackle all of these issues simultaneously, and that they cannot be addressed apart from one another. The adoption and consistent application of anti-bullying policies is not intended to, and should not, result in increased criminalization, nor should it exacerbate existing discipline disparities. Simultaneously, our efforts to eliminate unjust discipline and undue criminalization should not be seen as a license to victimize other members of the school community. Schools should be encouraging intervention and prevention over harsh, one-size-fits-all discipline strategies that may lead to student dropout or student push-out.

Where does GLSEN stand?

GLSEN firmly believes that the use of exclusionary discipline and zero-tolerance policies in our schools reduces access to educational opportunities, increases educational disparities, and contributes to a hostile school climate.

GLSEN supports legislation at the state and federal level, including the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which is proactively designed to counter the effects of the school-to-prison-pipeline, particularly by encouraging alternative discipline strategies. It also endorses the federal collection of data on LGBT students’ experiences that would allow for the assessment and tracking of discipline disparities among LGBT students.

GLSEN aims to make schools a place where all youth are valued, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. We work together with lawmakers, state-based coalition groups and all those concerned about equal access to education to ensure fair treatment for all, by balancing the need to address bullying while remaining cognizant of ongoing disparities in discrimination, criminalization, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Click here to read about new Department of Education discipline guidelines.

Read a blog entry written about how LGBT youth get caught in the Juvenile Justice System and what can be done.