The Development of the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Rebekah Frank


On Tuesday April 20th, 1999, events in a small town in Colorado forever altered our national understanding of school violence. That was the day when two young men, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, opened fire in their high school, ultimately killing 12 students and 1 teacher and injuring 21 additional people before killing themselves. The attack was meant to be much larger – explosive devices intended to kill hundreds more were littered throughout the school and inside Klebold and Harris’ abandoned cars. Years later it was reported that the duo hoped to rival the Oklahoma City bombings in scope and scale. As reported in Slate by Dave Cullen, author of the book Columbine, “their vision was to create a nightmare so devastating and apocalyptic that the entire world would shudder at their power.”


According to Cullen, “Harris and Klebold would have been dismayed that Columbine was dubbed the ‘worst school shooting in American history.’ They set their sights on eclipsing the world's greatest mass murderers…” Although Cullen might be right that Harris and Klebold would be disappointed in what they might have seen as their failure to carry out their full plan, the Columbine massacre had a much larger impact on American culture than this analysis really allows for. The Oklahoma City bombing certainly rattled the country when it happened, but it didn’t really impact our national conversation in any long term way. We wouldn’t allow ourselves to have an honest conversation about domestic terrorism because the perpetrator was a white man and that does not fit into our narrative of who the enemy is.


But the Columbine shooting did change the conversation. It made us view our schools as possible warzones, and students as the potential perpetrators. It brought us to where we are today in 2016. There have been countless school shootings – largely committed by white men – yet our response has been to place police officers in inner-city schools in lower-income neighborhoods. The results have been predictable yet incredibly unsettling.

This past September, the video of a school resource officer (SRO) in Columbia, South Carolina forcibly removing a 16-year-old female student from her desk and flinging her across the room before arresting her went viral. Officer Ben Fields was ultimately removed from his post but the implications of his actions, and the conversations they have spurred, have continued.


According to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2013-2014 school year about 43 percent of all US schools – 63 percent of middle schools and 64 percent of high schools - have SROs. Our public school system employs about 46,000 full-time and 36,000 part-time officers across the country. In theory, these officers supervise lunchrooms, coach sports, teach drug and alcohol awareness and, in many situations, become confidants to kids who need an ally at school or don’t have the support they need at home due to myriad different reasons. But, as the incident in South Carolina indications, the existence of SROs in schools is not always positive.


For some groups, the presence of police officers leads to a feeling of safety. Following the school shootings that seem to be increasing exponentially over the past nearly two decades since Columbine, it seems to make sense that police officers would be in school to act as a deterrent to crime, decrease response time if a crime is committed, and offer a sense of security and order to students, educators and parents alike.



The reality, however, can be very different. As we have learned over the past few years with the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and countless more, having a positive relationship with the police is more a luxury than a given. While white parents oftentimes tell their children to seek out police when they find themselves in a dangerous or scary situation, parents of black and Hispanic children teach their children to exercise caution. Even Bill de Blasio, the current mayor if New York City, chimed in on the issue when a jury failed to indict the white police officer who was involved in the choking death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner, a black man.


De Blasio spoke about teaching his son Dante, who is biracial, about how to deal with the police. De Blasio said, “What parents have done for decades who have children of color, especially young men of color, is train them to be very careful when they have encounter with a police officer.” He continued to explain that even something as simple as reaching for a cell phone, keys or a wallet for identification can have tragic results.


For many, the presence of SROs in the schools was a way to combat some of these problems, hopefully resulting in a more trust-filled relationship between police officers and young people of color starting at a younger age. But the results in many instances have been the opposite, with community members contending that SROs are actually contributing to the school-prison-pipeline by doling out harsh punishments for petty offenses such as tardiness.


Much of the problem with police in schools is that, in many instances, their hands are tied. Once a police officer has been called in to handle a problem in the classroom, the damage has essentially been done. Rather than sending a student to the principal when they are misbehaving which has historically been the teacher’s approach, police officers are bound by policy to respond using their role as law enforcement. This means that rather than getting detention or being suspended, many kids are arrested and entered into the criminal justice system – an experience that could lead to difficulties later on in life.



According to a Texas Appleseed report, of the 3,500 student arrests in 11 Texas districts in the 2006-2007 school year, only 20 percent of those involved violence or a weapon, and in more of those cases the weapon of choice was a fist. We all had experiences growing up where kids, affected by high stress and raging hormones, got into fist fights in the hallways or the playground. Those fights almost never led to an arrest and, as a result, those involved were able to move through their lives with an unblemished criminal record.


But now, with an uptick in rigid zero-tolerance policies, our schools are in some ways becoming a path into the criminal justice system. And it has been shown that those most likely to be caught up in this cycle are minorities, LGBT and special-needs students.


So what is the answer? It doesn’t seem as though school shootings have decreased, especially considering that most of the school shootings seem to occur in middle-to-upper-class white communities, the exact communities that don’t have SROs wandering their hallways. Has the increased presence of police officers in schools led to a decrease in violence or an improved relationship between minority communities and law enforcement?


If the data concerning who is being arrested is any indication, it would seem that the police presence is actually worsening an already fraught situation. Perhaps better, more nationally consistent training of SROs is the best approach. Or maybe, just maybe, we should leave it up to school systems to discipline the students, and simply keep law enforcement out of it. These kids deserve a chance to learn in a safe environment, not another way they can end up being incarcerated.


Author Bio:

Rebekah Frank is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


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