Prison Prep School
‘Zero-tolerance’ and ‘tough-on-crime’ policies put students in a school-to-prison pipeline.
BY Rebecca Burns
Metal detectors and uniformed security guards greet students each day at Orr Academy on Chicago’s West Side. “My high school seemed like its own personal prison,” Edward Ward, a 2011 Orr graduate, told the Senate Judiciary Committee during his testimony in December 2012. He recalled how a police processing center was even set up to book students on school grounds.
Ward’s testimony was part of a historic congressional hearing on the school-to-prison pipeline. With more than 3 million students suspended or expelled each year, U.S. schools are “increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system,” according to Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who convened the hearing.
Activists warn that this trend is exacerbating the racial disparities that already permeate the prison system. A 2010 study from Indiana University found that, compared with their white peers, black male middle-school students are three times more likely to be suspended, and black female students, four times. The Senate hearing represents a landmark moment in the campaign to eliminate school disciplinary policies that organizers say criminalize students and fail to address root causes of behavioral problems.
The emergence of the school-to-prison pipeline is linked to the proliferation of zero-tolerance policies adopted throughout the nation during the 1990s, prompted in part by a series of high-profile school shootings and a media narrative fixated on youth violence. In addition to bringing students into direct contact with law enforcement through school-based arrests and referrals to juvenile courts, schools can indirectly push students into the criminal justice system through policies that may isolate and exclude struggling students, such as out-of-school suspensions and high-stakes testing. ..................(more)