By: Amber Joiner-Hill, MSSW
Associate Policy Analyst, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago

I started developing a vocabulary around the criminalization of students—particularly those in elementary and middle school—about four years ago when I participated in my city’s “Citizen’s Academy”. The program exposed residents to various government services, functions, and challenges. The intent was to show what it took to keep the city going and hopefully generate a sense of ownership and connectedness to our community. One of our sessions was with a school resource officer from the local police department. I had not heard that term before and learned that this particular officer was assigned to patrol the hallways of a nearby middle school and high school and participate in disciplinary actions as requested or deemed necessary. The concept of having a police officer regularly present in a school and not just responding to an emergency was bizarre to me. When I was in school, the most threatening figure was Sister Stephanie—the Catholic principal who never smiled. She did not walk amongst us with a taser, baton, bullet-proof vest, or loaded gun like this school resource officer did.  

Years before meeting this officer, I researched and wrote papers about the mass incarceration of Black and Latino men. Listening to the school resource officer talk about her job gave me a clear picture of what likely happened to those incarcerated men before they entered the adult criminal justice system. They could have been victims of the school to prison pipeline.  

The Issue 

The school to prison pipeline is a journey from the education system to the juvenile justice system and perhaps then the adult criminal justice system. There are some specific “stops” along the pipeline that people experience before entering a justice systemi. Two stops often highlighted are the introduction of police officers into schools, and the zero tolerance approach implemented by school administrations. 

School resource officers are local police officers who work on the school grounds and have the ability to ticket, arrest, and detain students in response to a violation of a school policy. When teachers have a student who they would like to discipline but feel they cannot do it themselves, they can give that responsibility to a school resource officer and the consequences (legal and emotional) might place the student in the school to prison pipeline. This criminalization of students was highlighted in recent years with the release of several videos showing physical altercations between officers and the students they were trying to arrest, and encouraged conversations about racism within schools and the need for law enforcement on school campuses.  

The zero tolerance approach is similar to the criminological theory of broken windows—if you punish individuals for minor offenses, then they are less likely to commit more serious offenses or violations in the futureii. For example, if we handcuff a student and take him to the principal’s office for talking back to his teacher, then maybe he will not do it again. There is no data to support the effectiveness of such policies but there is evidence to suggest that they both enforce racial stereotypes against Black and Latin boys and meniii,iv.  

Why It’s Important 

The most commonly used forms of disciplinary action taken in schools are expulsions and in-school and out-of-school suspensions. The use of disciplinary actions that remove students from school, for any length of time, has the greatest impact on Black and Latino students, who are up to three times more likely to be suspended than their White peersv,vi. According to Rumberger and Losen (2016) students who receive a school suspension are 15-27% less likely to graduate high school. Nationally, students who do not graduate from high school are three and a half times more likely to get arrested in their lifetime and eight times more likely to spend time in jail or prisonvii,viii. One cannot draw causal conclusions here but the data supports the existence of a school to prison pipeline and also touches on the disproportionality of Black and Latino men in the adult criminal justice system. 

Communities as a whole suffer when residents are incarcerated because those individuals do not have the ability to work, and therefore are unable to support local businesses, pay taxes, volunteer in their community, or mentor younger generations.  

This is just a snapshot of the impact of the criminalization of students. In part two of this post, I will describe an alternative that school administrators should consider: restorative justice. Do you have a student, client, or family who has been affected by the school to prison pipeline? 

Look out for Part 2 on Friday!

Additional Resources

1 American Civil Liberties Union. (n.d.). Locating the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Retrieved from

2 Skiba, R. (2004). Zero Tolerance: The Assumptions and the Facts. Indiana University: Center for Evaluation & Education Policy.

3 Vedantam, S., Benderev, C., Boyle, T., Klahr, R., Penman, M., & Schmidt, J. (2016, November 1). How A Theory of Crime and Policing Was Born, And Went Terribly Wrong [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

4 Advancement Project (2005, March). Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track. Washington D.C.: Advancement Project.

5 Losen, D., Hodson, C., Keith II, M. A., Morrison, K., & Belway, S. (2015). Are We Closing the School Discipline Gap?. UCLA: The Center for Civil Rights Remedies.

6 U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. (2014, March). Civil Rights Data Collection Data Snapshot: School Discipline. (Issue Brief No 1). Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.

7 Rumberger, R. W. & Losen, D. J. (2016). The High Cost of Harsh Discipline and Its Disparate Impact. UCLA & UCSB: The Center for Civil Rights Remedies

8 Christeson, B., Lee, B., Schaefer, S., Kass, D., & Messner-Zidell, S. (2008). School or the Streets: Crime and America’s Dropout Crisis. Washington D.C.: Fight Crime Invest in Kids.

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