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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

School-to-Prison Pipeline: Leadership's Responsibility in Effective Disciplinary Practices

School-to-Prison Pipeline: Leadership’s Responsibility in Effective Disciplinary Practices

By Jeremy Eltz
Doctoral Student
Indiana State University
STEM Coordinator
Indiana Department of Education
Ryan Donlan
Assistant Professor
Department of Educational Leadership
Bayh College of Education
Indiana State University

Elliot Washor and Charles Mojkowski (2013) noted how out-of-school learning and engagement increases student success and reduces the dropout rate.  While they certainly make an excellent point that we must think about “doing school” a different way, they also inspire us to think in the inverse regarding a school’s obligation to provide quality, out-of-school experiences in order to make this happen.  One could argue that schools today provide out-of-school learning experiences, but rather through the use of suspensions and expulsions, as opposed to intentional curricular design. 
This is probably not new information for anyone; yet rather, a reason to make the case that our most bleak schools and communities need our most dynamic, effective, and highly trained, capable leaders, with a laser-like focus on continual engagement and student opportunity. Not only on kids’ best days, but on their not-so-best as well.
Last year Indianapolis held the distinct honor of having a higher murder rate than Chicago.  Many of these murders go unsolved because no witnesses care enough to come forward.  On June 16th, 2014, a murder trial took place for one of many defendants, amidst one of many victims, both African American boys on the east side of Indianapolis.  Something happened between the two boys; now, both families are irrevocably broken.  A child’s life outcome may very well be influenced by where he lived.  Had these two boys lived in Carmel, one could argue they may have been roommates in college instead of rival drug dealers. Education or community assets might have prevented a mother from burying her son and then testifying at the trial.  Education or community assets might have prevented another young man from spending the next 45 years of his life in a 5x8 cell.
Much pressure is placed upon school leaders to save their communities and ensure their students don’t end up becoming statistics.  To expect school leaders to change communities might be a tad unreasonable; however, expecting them to do what they are able to do, and control what they can control, is not.  One such example would be in school discipline.
School leaders determine the consequences for students when their behaviors become a distraction.  School leaders decide how long to put students out on the streets when suspended or expelled, or conversely to keep them inside.  School leaders decide whether or not to allow students a viable, powerful out-of-school teaching and learning curriculum, such as that shared by Washor and Mojkowski (2013).  In other words, school leaders deliver a curriculum either by what they offer to students facing school sanctions, or through what they don’t. 
Several reports have come out recently depicting the state of our nation’s schools. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2013, research by Robers, Kemp, Rathbun, & Morgan (2014). They reported that in 2012, roughly 750,000 assaults and 31 violent deaths occurred in K-12 schools.  This report indicated that city schools had substantially higher rates of gang presence, classroom disorder, disrespect toward teachers, bullying, sexual harassment, and/or racial tension.  Black and Hispanic students still had the highest dropout rate at 7 and 14 percent respectively.  
From a financial perspective, it is cheaper to educate rather than to incarcerate.  The phrase, “school-to-prison pipeline” describes the all-too-common incidence of schools diverting students into the juvenile or corrections system. These schools are disproportionately urban schools in our largest school districts. NCES indicates the population of these schools is 38% Hispanic, 33% African American, 20% white, and 7% Asian (Robers et al., 2014).  Students are not graduating from high school to college, rather from the county jail to the state prison.
Typically, urban schools are staffed by well-meaning individuals, but those individuals are often culturally, racially, linguistically, etc. different from their students, which can strain communication and lead to personality conflicts.  In many cases, teachers simply do not understand their students, ethnically or culturally, and they do not live in the communities in which they teach.  Thus, the students in the most need of additional education and counseling typically are not well understood.  Consider the case of African American students, who represent 16% of the student population, yet account for 31% of school-related arrests (Robers et al., 2014). These students are also three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than Caucasian students, and students who are suspended or expelled are three times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.
We suggest that no silver bullet exists for effective discipline.  Yet, we do say, “School leaders, please take a note, that policies written by your district and enforced at the student level don’t always make sense or apply to the situation.”  It is more important to identify what factors culturally, socially, academically, and psychologically, lead this student to act this way. Sometimes the way we prescribe consequence is similar to a doctor treating the symptoms and not the cause, putting a Band-Aid on something malignant.
Such is the case with many exclusionary discipline practices that have been proven not to work. How could they work, when they lead to lost learning time and a lack of student intervention?  Across the country, 95% of suspensions are for non-violent offenses for things like tardiness, disrespect, disruptive behavior, profanity, and other seemingly trivial offenses (Robers et al., 2014).  One has to believe that a great deal of this boils down to poor communication between adults and students.
Our best school leaders know that every decision they make affects those around them and the future of our communities.  It is unfortunate that schools have to take much more responsibility for the well-being of children than the hours of enrollment per day would seem to necessitate, but that is the case, and our leaders have to be up to the challenge.
Our school leaders must even more effectively understand how current disciplinary practices and policies are leading to unintended educational outcomes for our most at-risk students – those that run counter to the principles upon what we wish our society to uphold.  With this in mind, can we find a way to honor the personalities and individuality of all students, and further, to connect with their caregivers and families in partnership?   
It’s not only important from a societal perspective, but it’s morally and ethically the right thing to do.


Robers, S., Kemp, J., Rathbun, A., & Morgan, R.E. (2014). Indicators of School Crime and
Safety: 2013. National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Washington, DC.  

Washor, E., & Mojkowski, C. (2013). Leaving to learn: How out-of-school learning increases student engagement and reduces dropout rates. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Jeremy Eltz and Ryan Donlan believe in the collective capacity of policymakers, statewide stewards, and local educators to make a positive difference in education on behalf of children, families, and communities.  They can be reached at or at

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