The Myth of the School-to-Prison Pipeline

The term “school-to-prison pipeline is an unfair way to describe what’s happening because the schools just don’t have the resources to be the intervention against poverty that they need to be.” Anna Deavere Smith, actor and author of Notes From the Field.

The next time you’re inclined to seek scapegoats, stupid slogans, and simplistic “solutions” for complex educational issues, please keep this fact in mind: Schools and teachers, both individually and collectively, are not the problem.

Now, I may be preaching to the choir on a blog dedicated to educators and parents, but sometimes we too need to see past the rhetoric and remember that schools and teachers are actually the crucial components in ensuring that every single child, regardless of their challenges or charms, receives the appropriate nurture and education necessary to become capable, conscientious, contented adults.

On the other hand, I may be striking a nerve of some with my purposely provocative title. Please first hear me out, and see if in the end any initial disagreements you may have with this article and its title are more about semantics than substance.

If you’re seeking blame for why too many kids face more obstacles than opportunities, you must look far beyond the schoolhouse door. The real culprits in the often intentional corrupting of kids and the tarnishing of their once-bright futures are more likely to be political paternalism, poverty, the systematic undermining of public schools, and an omnipresent media that glamorizes and normalizes violence, materialism, narcissism, hypersexulaity, and anti-intellectualism.

Our schools are actually one of the few places that continuously strive to counter all that external negativity and neglect. They should be the havens where every student finds an abundance of sensitivity and support, passion and purpose, as well as scholarship and success.

Schools and individual teachers can frequently do a better job at all of this, but they’re too often distracted by, reacting to, and trying their best to remedy factors not of their making and not wholly within their control. Words matter, and referring to our schools as incarceration factories has less to do with child advocacy and more to do with the ongoing attempts to dismantle public education by privatizing schools and profiting off of our youth.


Probable Pipelines

When was the last time you heard people talk about:

  • the guns-and-gangs-to-prison pipeline,
  • the drinking-and-drugs-to-prison pipeline, or
  • the abuse-and-abandonment-to-prison pipeline?

“Data shows that more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma in the form of abuse, neglect, violence, or challenging household circumstances—and 35 percent of children have experienced more than one type of traumatic event, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” (Edutopia, 2017).

And yet the public and politicians want to point the finger only at schools???

Clearly, schools are not the main cause of the unconscionable number of people behind bars. Yet somehow, schools and teachers bear the blame and shoulder the stigma– and are saddled with becoming the the sole solution.

As a classroom teacher for 2y years, who has worked directly with at-risk youth for his entire career, I want to set the record straight.


The Loop of Low Performance

Too many schools, especially those with a majority of students who have the greatest needs and struggles, are forced to cope with paltry resources, crumbling facilities, outdated equipment, a disproportionate number of inexperienced administrators and teachers, misguided mandates, scripted and stifling instructional programs, and unconscionable adult-to-child ratios.

Ironically, these are also the schools that are saddled with all the “accountability” yet are expected make miracles amidst scrutiny and sanctions that neither address the real issues at the individual school site nor the comprehensive needs of all children.

As a result, the vast majority of committed, compassionate, and highly capable teachers who choose to work at the lowest-performing schools are too often constricted and criticized for their noble efforts with the kids who happen to need them the most. Being chronically hamstrung and harangued doesn’t allow these talented teachers to be their best and certainly prevents them from fully moving their students forward in the ways they need most– ways that do not just include academics but social-emotional learning and support as well..

The sad fact is that too many schools are not fully equipped or funded to properly educate the youth they serve. Now school are called upon to be professional mental health clinics and medical centers, too? Where are the personnel, facilities, and funding for that? Where’s that pipeline?

Instead of suspending students, schools are now supposed to support them through the trauma that causes them to act out in the first place. And doesn’t this sound like the compassionate and correct thing to do?

But during what part of the instructional day? And carried out by whom?

By school guidance counselors, who are nowhere near trained or licensed to conduct ongoing therapy to a caseload of hundreds of students for whom they already valiantly struggle to provide basic academic assistance and routine coping skills?

By classroom teachers, who are even less prepared as child psychologists and who have literally no dedicated time to meet with students privately and one-on-one to conduct regular therapy sessions?

Educators already sincerely honor and dauntlessly attend to the needs of the whole child, which certainly includes active attention to each child’s social-emotional development. But to place entire blame on public institutions that were created only to educate students, and then to foist complete responsibility on teachers and schools for the psychological wellbeing of children who grow up in homes and communities that do some kids more harm than good, is wrongheaded, mean-spirited, and patently unfair.

Schools are not imprisonment aqueducts; through sheer neglect and out of unintended necessity, they’ve become society’s dumping grounds and scapegoats for the injustices wrought upon our most vulnerable youth.

Notes-from-the field

Anna Deavere Smith was interviewed by Time magazine in their November 7, 2016 issue:

Time: In Notes From the Field, you tackle the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, through which many poor kids end up in the criminal-justice system instead of in school.

ADS: Two hundred and fifty interviews later, I think it’s not right to call it the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s more broadly a problem of poverty. There are lots of things pulling against the possibility that a kid could have a rich intellectual development. I don’t think it’s fair to blame teachers. If we want schools to be an effective intervention, they have to have all kinds of supports that aren’t there now.


How We Keep Failing Kids with Improper Leadership

Obviously, one-size-fits-all school policies of zero tolerance and an obsession with test scores have failed kids. Also, any time compliance takes precedence over common sense and compassion, kids suffer.

Habitually leaping to negative consequences is never a wise leadership approach, not in a school, not in a society, and not in a home. In addition, neglecting to attend to the whole child never meets the full needs of a kid who is crying out– sometimes silently and sometimes stridently– for adult empathy and support.

So, are we seeking slogans and scapegoats or real solutions?

How many school police offers, campus security personnel, and deans of discipline have been replaced with licensed therapists and full time, on-site child psychologists?

How many detention and referral rooms and metal detectors have been replaced with green spaces, gardens, art galleries, makerspaces, performance spaces, clubrooms, health and wellness clinics, and thriving parent centers?

Does every school offer a wealth of intriguing, hands-on electives, where each student has a real choice in what they want to explore and create? Is every student embraced by an inclusive school community and inspired to work for the common good? Are there mentorship programs in every school where students find purpose and comfort in helping each other and their neighborhood?

Instead of bemoaning the current pipeline, what pipeline have we built to replace the old one?

Or, in the furious scramble for change for change’s sake, have we thrown the baby out with the bathwater and merely cleansed the data by forbidding essentially all suspensions and expulsions? Haven’t we now swung from zero tolerance to a de facto acceptance of all but the most egregious student behaviors? And isn’t blanket dispensation and turning a blind eye just another form of a one-size-fits-all approach to student discipline that got us into this mess in the first place?

Has anyone studied how a virtually consequence-free campus influences the self-regulation of both its most notorious and its most noble students? What does abdicating our adult authority and eliminating every instance of childhood accountability actually do to kids today, both in the long and the short run?

Exactly when did the adult who issued a fitting consequence to a child become more maligned or more suspect than the child who committed the offense in the first place? Isn’t it an adult’s duty to enforce rules and to ensure respect for all?


Just Ask

Try asking the teachers at the hardest-to-staff schools if they feel like their own health (both physical and mental) and livelihood are in serious jeopardy on a daily basis. Ask them if they fear being thrown under the bus after being accused of instigating or escalating an ugly situation, while in the midst of earnestly trying to educate and inspire kids they truly care about. Ask them if they fear being deemed guilty until proven innocent, and even then the stain on their reputation and psyche will be so great that their once-beloved career is all but ruined.

And try asking students what it feels like to have their education routinely highjacked by a handful of students who wantonly disrupt the learning process, while their teacher seems powerless to make it stop. And while you are at it, ask that rebellious, recalcitrant group of students how it really feels to steal the education of others, while simultaneously squandering their own.

And don’t be surprised if you’re initially met with a wall of insolence or silence from such unruly students because years of neglect, dysfunction, and hurt aren’t going to be revealed or overcome with one instance of adult compassion. Complex, chronic problems don’t respond to quick fixes; these walls must be carefully refashioned into bridges, brick by brick.



The Problem with Leaping to Polar Opposites

Especially when educators themselves are hotly debating the legitimacy of such school staples like deadlines and homework, direct instruction and textbooks, assigned seats and traditional classroom furniture, as well as zeros and even academic grades, is it any wonder that kids today experience an unprecedented amount of entitlement on their part and continual yielding on the part of the significant adults in their lives?

When something is not working as well as before, when something needs tweaking or reevaluation, when something has gotten out of hand, or when something is not serving the current needs of kids, society tends to demonize and then demand a dismantling of the entire affair. Some act as if what parents and teachers have been doing for at least the last century was not only completely counterproductive, it was patently immoral and plain old idiotic.

Of course, acting like a dinosaur, a dilettante, or a daredevil are all idiotic when it comes to serving the essential, immutable needs of kids. Therefore, frequent reflection, reassessment, and reworking are all good things– as long as they are done with reason, measure, and grace.

But if what we’re actually doing is scrambling for change for change’s sake and seeking another sweeping swing of the pendulum, we best realize that merely doing the polar opposite of something that actually only needs some adjusting never ever works.

If we’re also simply placating kids and indulging what’s easiest for and most alluring to them in the moment instead of demanding and developing what’s best for them in the long run, we adults better do some soul searching before we  shortchange the next generation of kids.


A Pipeline of Progress and Promise

Even at the height of zero-tolerance educational policies, I’ve interpreted the claims of a school-to-prison pipeline as far more scurrilous and ultimately undermining than truly helpful or genuinely sensitive. But I suspect the real motives of many who wield such an insolent indictment to be intentionally defamatory and sabotaging.

Schools, and especially teachers, do not out of sheer neglect or outright malice turn an otherwise stellar student into a hardened criminal. By the same token, teachers do not purposely take at-risk youth and push them over the edge. The problems are too varied and complex to simply blame it all on the education system.

Absent, ill prepared, or overwhelmed parents often play a part in the unintentional thwarting of our youth. And despite all of the mostly misguided efforts to remedy the situation, there also still exist too many absent, ill prepared, or overwhelmed teachers who either are not part of the solution or who exacerbate an already out of control situation.

At best, most secondary teachers get 150 total hours in a single school year to educate and nurture each of their 150 (or more) precious students. Compare that amount of influence to a parent who has had ten or sixteen years to develop their child’s self-control, self-confidence, self-expression, and self-efficacy. It is clear that many parents need more help, but where is the system of parent professional development? What about that pipeline?

Yet the entire focus of this series of articles on strong adult leadership hasn’t been to at all point fingers and to cast blame but to instead offer practical solutions and fresh perspectives that bring parents and teachers together, rather than pitting them against each other. I’m certain that there exists a great capacity in every teacher and parent to motivate every child to act positively and productively.

For it’s within this continuous, eminently achievable self-reflection and self-improvement, augmented by reliable support systems for adult and child alike, that reside our greatest potential, as well as our greatest call to action. And it’s upon sensible solutions that include all stakeholders where we should collectively focus our energy and resources, not upon sanctions, slander, and lawsuits that only address symptoms, rather than root causes.

Notwithstanding whatever legitimate reasons or lame excuses that are offered, if parents and teachers are not supplying all children with the proper leadership, love, laughter, and learning that all kids both need and deserve, there will continue to be an unacceptable number of children who fall through the cracks. And even one child who’s fundamentally and chronically underserved or ignored, both at home and at school, is unacceptable.

The overuse of extreme tactics such as corporal punishment, citations, handcuffs, suspensions, expulsions, and juvenile detention, especially upon our most vulnerable youth, helped support the prison pipeline panic. Restorative justice, morning meetings, and peer mediation are steps in the right direction, but they’re not in themselves suitable substitutes for strong adult leadership.

When will we finally realize that what kids needed all along was firmness and leadership mixed with equal parts fairness and love, fascination and laughter, as well as facilitation and learning?


The Four Ways We Show Kids We Care

Standing up for kids sometimes entails standing up to them. Love and fairness aren’t the only ways adults support and show children we care about them. Laughing with them as they’re engaged in some fascinating task also evokes closeness and caring. Equally as impactful, facilitating a child’s learning definitely shows we want them to grow and succeed.

And firm leadership—at times resolute, resounding, or “rough”—is but one more way of proving to kids that we care about their conduct and attitude. In fact, we care so much that we will ensure every child acts in the best interest of all involved– up until the time that those children can provide us with the long-sought-after reassurance that they can do so for themselves.


How do you include leadership in the ways you interact with your children or students? How does that adult leadership actually enhance the flow of love, laughter, and learning in your home or classroom?

Please share your insights, opinions, and experiences in the comments section below. Whether or not you are still wed to the notion of a school-to-prison pipeline, let’s move the conversation forward, especially focusing on what you have personally done to be part of the solution.


If we want to make a difference in the life of every child, then let’s teach them how they themselves can each make a difference in this world. Teaching the Benefit Mindset is Amazon’s #1 New Release in Experimental Teaching Methods! You can read more about this inspiring and practical new book here.

Character Therapy Edutopia

Read this award-winning Edutopia article I wrote about using young adult literature as a way of processing childhood trauma.

King question

Also read this Education Week commentary I wrote about teaching empathy, inclusion, and altruism to every student.

Booklist quote + cover

In addition to teaching and inspiring a diverse population of at-risk and underprivileged youth for over twenty-five years, my books for teachers and parents offer practical solutions for nurturing and educating the whole child.

A Teacher’s Inside Advice to Parents: How Children Thrive with Leadership, Love, Laughter, and Learning is available on Amazon (#1 New Release in Parent Participation in Education), Barnes&Noble, and wherever books are sold.


Thanks for making this article the #1 Google search result for “school-to-prison pipeline myth.”

School-Prison #1

6 thoughts on “The Myth of the School-to-Prison Pipeline

  1. Robert, I agree with most of your post. The title makes it seem like there doesn’t exist a school to prison pipeline. Schools discipline systems are precursors to our penal system. Some are moving toward the direction of restorative justice which is the solution for a lot of the problems. We have police officers that are harming our children in school just as they are out of school. One school is now forcing students to pay a fine if they are late to school. I am not an expert in the school to prison pipeline but it is abundantly clear to me that it exists. This document was super useful for me to understand what it is.
    As always love your thought provoking posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and for the ACLU link. Do draconian, blanket discipline responses hurt kids? Absolutely. But instead of working on a more measured, sensitive approach to severe or chronic student discipline issues, people with other agendas prefer to demonize the education system as a whole with unwarranted accusations that our schools are no more than funnels for a life behind bars. Such indictments only demoralize teachers, panic parents, and poison the public’s perception of the important, compassionate, and positive work schools do for most students on a daily basis. Can we do better, especially for our most vulnerable youth? Absolutely! But let’s focus upon what we want, rather than what we don’t, and identify the ways all schools can function as School-to-Success-and-Satisfaction Pipelines.


      1. It is important to not provide a broad term in its applicability of the educational system within the school to prison pipeline which is in fact real. This can be seen through many lens such as level of of income within a specified area and which races are concentrated. It is the already privatization of funds provided to schools which differentiates on a broad basis. An example of this would be to compare the city of San Bernardino, CA which has a concentrated population of low income people of color (Latinx) as compared to a school in Beverly Hills which has a concentrated population of white middle upper class. There is a difference in the funding and where it goes. A school funds more security guards than school counselors. This can be in reference to schools in Sacramento. Therefore, if the funds are setting up a so-called panopticon (Foucault theory) of surveillance, what is the education system truly preparing students for? Is it engagement into the real world or the carceral system?


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