How The School-to-Prison Pipeline Is Created

Columbia University professor describes the “symbiotic relationship between urban neighborhoods, public education, and the criminal justice system.”

A Chicago probationary police officer is stationed as part of the city's Safe Passage program at an elementary school. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

America’s school and criminal-justice systems have been veering toward a curious alliance—with dangerous repercussions for the children in their grasp.

Often, programs for establishing new schools result in the closure and combination of many schools without much care for how students would experience having to cross race, class, neighborhood, and gang lines to get to school. Many schools, instead of providing avenues out of poverty in low-income neighborhoods, become highly policed environments that reinforce racial inequality and distrust of authority. With the rise of metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and pat-downs in schools, students interact with police during a formative period that shapes their life-long attitudes and life trajectories. Schools become the new frontiers of broken-windows policing, with a focus on social control and punitive measures instead of on education and growth.

The symbiotic relationship between urban neighborhoods, public education, and the criminal-justice system is pervasive throughout the country.

Despite a surge in attention to neighborhood effects in big cities, my research shows that schools are more powerful engines of social stratification than neighborhoods. Urban high schools, in particular, play a major role in how students perceive and experience authoritative figures, whether teachers in school or police officers on the street. For some kids—especially those in our nation’s biggest cities—attending a well-resourced school in a well-resourced neighborhood is the only way out of an existence where their every move is subject to police control.

I have studied the intersection between the systems of public education and criminal justice and the impact on the lives of urban youth for nearly 15 years. This research moves beyond New York and Chicago’s borders, where I have focused my work, to other areas where opportunity is determined by zip code.

My findings reveal that it is race combined with gender, class, age, demeanor, and place that determines who is—and is not—ensnared in the ever-expanding web of police control because the social concentration of the justice system’s impact is not evenly, or randomly, distributed. According to my survey research and interviews with students, people of color in more diverse schools are more likely to recognize that they are discriminated against, because they see the ways they are being treated differently.

In urban schools all across the country, what will the next generation have to contend with? We must figure out ways to reverse these troubling trends by working toward fulfilling the promise of our nation’s public institutions to meet the needs of its most vulnerable citizens. This is the standard by which we should gauge our realization of the ideals of American democracy and justice.

Contributor Carla Shedd (Barbara Alper)

How do we proceed?

First, we must incorporate the perspectives of young people who are often the target of studies as true participants in shaping policy. Often, those deemed to be the “problem” have the greatest insights into powerful solutions.

Second, a commitment to fairness and procedural justice must be central to the organization of our nation’s public-school and criminal-justice systems in alignment with these institutions’ missions to educate and protect their constituents. Students should not be feeling they are only being surveilled and controlled in their schools.

Finally, we as concerned citizens, teachers, legislators, and policymakers must do our part to recognize and fight against the extinction of our neighborhood schools while simultaneously campaigning to rescind the long reach of the carceral state. Urban adolescents intensely experience the interaction of these two institutions in an era of declining budgets, wholesale educational reform, and increased correctional spending that works to sort them toward their next institution—a university, community college, or a correctional facility—at ever earlier stages.

Carla Shedd is assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at Columbia University. She is author of the forthcoming book Unequal City: Race, Schools, & Perceptions of Injustice (Russell Sage Foundation, 2015).

Say It columns are works of opinion that reflect the writer's viewpoint as supported by evidence. They do not represent the opinions of Next America, its parent company or affiliates.