Breaking the School to Prison-Deportation Pipeline through Restorative Justice

According to data from the ACLU, 14 million students go to a school with a police officer but no counselor, nurse, psychologist or social worker. This is particularly troubling, as youth experience daily trauma that they carry with them into the classroom. When their trauma is unacknowledged by adults around them, students often find themselves criminalized and pushed into the school to prison-deportation pipeline. 

Students Facing Incarceration

The school to prison pipeline pushes students out of classrooms and into the juvenile justice system. One especially impactful set of policies are zero tolerance discipline measures that mandate specific punishments (usually suspension or expulsion) for behavioral infractions. These measures were originally enacted to punish serious offenses; however, they have become used to punish students for minor infractions such as talking back to teachers

In addition, many School Resource Officers (SROs) are members of law enforcement who do not have any mandated training on working with children but are typically allowed to carry weapons and make arrests. The increased presence of these officers in schools has led to heightened student suspension and arrests for behavior that could be otherwise dealt with by school officials. 

These policies do not impact all students equally. Data from the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) shows that Black students are 3 times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their White counterparts. Additionally, Black students make up 31% of students arrested in school while they only make up 16% of enrolled students. Data suggests that school push-out begins for Black students in preschool, with Black children making up 19% of preschool students but 47% of preschool students who received one or more out of school suspensions. Clearly, students of color are disproportionately impacted by policies that push them out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice system.

Students Facing Deportation

Student criminalization - through a school to deportation pipeline - can lead to a cascade of events that push students out of school and onto the radar of immigration agencies. School arrests can lead to students being referred to ICE for deportation. Arrests can even have effects on students’ future attempts at gaining citizenship. 

ICE has been targeting immigrants suspected of being gang members through programs like Operation Matador in New York. When students are suspected of having gang affiliations or violate a school rule, they are often referred to ICE. Students are often suspected of being in gangs for vague reasons such as wearing certain clothing, drawing in class, and even speaking to certain classmates. This systemic discrimination puts students and their families at risk of being separated and can have serious effects on students’ emotional wellbeing.

These discipline strategies have negative effects on students’ academic performance - students who had been suspended or expelled were twice as likely to drop out compared to students who had not been suspended. In addition to the academic impacts of the school to prison pipeline, being suspended and having encounters with police can exacerbate trauma students experience at home and in their communities.  

Moving Towards Healing

Even though these policies and practices make school climate tense and degrade relationships between students, teachers, and staff - schools are often not adequately prepared to provide students the care and attention that they need to heal

Many grassroots organizations are fighting for schools where students can learn and grow rather than be pushed out. For example, the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a coalition of grassroots organizations, teachers, students, and their families, seeks to dismantle the school to prison pipeline through initiatives such as Counselors Not Cops and Solutions Not Suspensions. These initiatives urge schools to enact strategies that center healing - such as investing in students’ mental health and implementing restorative strategies for discipline that do not rely on pushing students out of school. 

In particular, ’restorative justice’ describes a wide variety of strategies that have been implemented in schools as an alternative to zero-tolerance discipline. In the restorative justice framework, the goal of discipline is not to be punitive but rather to repair harm by restoring relationships. One of the ways that restorative justice is practiced is through talking circles - spaces where people can move forward from harms caused by community members by holding them accountable without pushing them out of the community itself. In schools, restorative justice has been used in response to everything from vandalism to physical altercations between students. 

When asked how schools can create healthy environments for students and teachers to engage with trauma and move toward healing, community mental health specialist Stephanie Chiquillo suggested that schools become more restorative and less punitive environments. In order to do this, Chiquillo says, taking a restorative justice approach is a great first step, but schools should also be thinking about restoring the harm done on entire communities by “naming, understanding, and acknowledging the power of white supremacy.” 

By acknowledging the systems of power and privilege that impact students’ lives in and out of school, teachers and other school staff can begin to work against the systems that uphold the school to prison pipeline. In addition to other strategies, certain states have incorporated the School Responder Model where clinical staff respond to disciplinary issues by conducting behavioral health screenings and connecting youth to services. This model uses restorative techniques, limits students’ engagement with law enforcement, and incorporates students’ families and communities as part of the solution.

Ultimately, school discipline is a complicated issue that requires an intersectional response that takes into account the circumstances that impact students’ behavior, supports students with mental and behavioral health needs, and prioritizes learning and healing over punishment.  

Learn more about grassroots efforts exemplifying this approach and consider how you can support them: