Can Implementing Restorative Justice in K – 12 Schools Eliminate the School-to-Prison Pipeline for Minority Students?

The school-to-prison pipeline is a serious issue in the educational system and American society. Restorative Justice efforts can help phase out the school-to-prison pipeline for many students of color.  However, it must be implemented comprehensively across schools for it to be successful, and teachers must be supported throughout the process.

Photo: Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, Courtesy of Google Images
What is the school-to-prison pipeline?

The school-to-prison pipeline is a term used to refer to the trend in school discipline policies that “push students out of school and on a pathway to prison.” Often zero-tolerance policies in the school are to blame since these policies mandate school officials to administer strict, often harsh punishment, such as suspension or expulsion, to students whenever a rule is broken, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the incident or the reasons for the student’s behavior.  For instance, a ten-year-old female student was expelled from school for possessing a weapon when she found a small knife in her lunchbox, which her mother had placed in there for the student to cut her apple.  Despite giving the knife to her teacher immediately after finding it, she was still expelled.  The school administrator had explained that he would not have expelled the student under the circumstances but for the school’s zero-tolerance policy on weapons.

Schools initially implemented zero-tolerance policies back in the 1990s, after adopting the Gun-Free Schools Act, which required schools to expel, for at least one year, any student who possessed a firearm at school or brought a firearm into the school.  However, schools soon expanded the offenses requiring suspension or expulsion to include minor offenses such as defiance or disobedience toward staff, profanity, inappropriate use of cell phones, and classroom disruptions–especially when those offenses are repetitive.  For instance, a high school student was suspended for 10 days for talking on his cell phone in the school cafeteria even though he was talking to his mother, who was deployed to Iraq, for the first time in 30 days.  The student was suspended for disorderly conduct because he refused to hang up after the teacher demanded it and became frustrated when she took his phone away during the call.

Zero tolerance policies disproportionately negatively affect African American students.

The premise of zero-tolerance policies was to ensure all students’ fairer treatment since such policies would remove the opportunity for administrators to be subjectively influenced by a particular situation or student.  An American Psychological Association task force tasked with evaluating zero-tolerance policies through an extensive literature review covering a 20-year period found that African-American students have been consistently disproportionately subjected to suspension and expulsion and may have suffered more severe discipline for less serious reasons than white students.

The task force explained that many schools have implemented security profiling and hired student resource officers (SROs) to aid in preventing school violence, both of which may have contributed to the higher numbers of students of color who have been entered into the juvenile justice system as a result of school referrals.  Some schools utilized profiling to identify students at risk of committing infractions warranting suspension, expulsion, or referral to the justice system by comparing them to students who had committed such behaviors in the past.  The task force found that such profiling was unreliable in promoting school safety  and “tend[ed] to overidentify students from minority populations as potentially dangerous.”

In addition, the task force found that since the introduction of SROs, more students were being referred to the juvenile justice system for infractions that were not perceived as “dangerous or threatening,” contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.  In explaining the pipeline, Libby Nelson and Dara Lind, writing for the Justice Policy Institute, explained that teachers are more likely to refer students to the SROs rather than handling the behavior on their own when SROs were in the school.  Thus, SROs, originally assigned to schools to prevent mass shootings, have since been used to police students.  When schools use SROs to discipline students, they are effectively handing that student over to the juvenile justice system, which increases the chances that a student will end up with a juvenile record even for relatively minor infractions.

In a landmark study in Texas, researchers found that only three percent of the suspensions given were for infractions mandating suspension. Black students were 31 percent more likely to be suspended than white students when the suspension was discretionary.  The Texas study initially studied every seventh-grade student in the state and then tracked them for six years to determine subsequent academic and disciplinary behaviors.  Of the seventh graders who had been suspended or expelled, researchers found that not only did 31 percent later repeat a grade but also that these students were three times more likely to come in contact with the juvenile probation system and twice as likely to drop out of school later.

“There is, in fact, a ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’”

In a study published in 2020, Andrew Bacher-Hicks, Assistant Professor of Education at Boston University, found a causal connection between students who attended schools with strict discipline policies and were suspended and negative outcomes later in life.  Bacher-Hicks took advantage of the court-ordered redistricting in North Carolina’s  Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District in the 2002-03 academic year to study a sample of students assigned to the same middle school before the redistricting, who were then assigned to different schools with differing discipline policies.  The study found that black males suffered the most harmful effects of harsher suspension policies; they were “significantly more likely to be arrested and incarcerated as adults.”  The study also found no positive benefits of strict school discipline, which is shocking since benefits such as increased academic performance and reductions in dropout rates have long been touted as the primary benefits of strict disciplinary measures.

Restorative justice focuses on repairing harm rather than punishing behavior.

Restorative justice (RJ), also referred to as “restorative practices” or “restorative approaches,” is an approach that addresses student behavior by focusing on repairing the harm caused by the behavior and restoring the relationships between the offending student and the community rather than on punishing the student for the behavior.  RJ in the schools typically consists of three tiers:  prevention, intervention, and reintegration.  In the prevention tier, teachers utilize circles to build the classroom community by emphasizing the importance of inclusion and respect for all students.  In the intervention tier, which utilizes mediation, the student can meet with the affected parties and the teacher/mediator to repair the harm or make things right rather than receive punishment for the behavior.  The student and harmed parties work together to develop a plan to address the harm and ultimately strengthen the relationship between them.  Finally, reintegration is designed to provide a more supportive environment for students returning from suspension or expulsion.  In this phase, the student and school staff develop a plan that acknowledges the challenges the student may face and identifies supports to help the student overcome those challenges while still promoting accountability for the actions, leading to the student’s removal from school.

Schools are increasingly looking at RJ practices as an alternative to suspension, detention, and expulsion, especially for infractions that may not merit such drastic measures.  However, RJ programs within the schools vary, making it more difficult to define what constitutes RJ and developing studies on RJ’s effects.  In some schools, RJ programs encompass the whole school, replacing or supplementing many traditional zero-tolerance policies.  RJ has been combined with other programs such as Social and Emotional Learning or Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports in other schools.

Recent controlled studies on the effects of RJ show mixed results.

Studying the effects of RJ has been difficult. RAND Corporation conducted two separate randomized, controlled trials in which it randomly assigned schools in  Pittsburgh, PA, and Maine to try RJ. Then it compared the results from those schools to other schools in the city and state, respectively.

The two studies obtained different results.  Researchers found that schools implementing RJ practices had improved overall school climates and reduced suspension rates from the control schools in the Pittsburgh study but no improvement in arrest rates and academic outcomes.  The Maine study found no differences between the schools; however, some teachers in the control group schools had actually tried “bits and pieces” of RJ practices with their students despite a lack of formal training on it, making it more difficult for researchers to make conclusive findings.

RJ programs must be comprehensive, implemented strategically, and be supportive of educators “every step of the way.”

Tim Walker, writing for the National Education Association, summarized the National Education Policy Center’s recent policy brief.  Mr. Walker states that researchers have found that RJ programs have “helped reduce exclusionary discipline and narrow the glaring racial disparities in how discipline is meted out in schools.”  However, to be successful, it must be done comprehensively so that its preventative practices address the whole school.  Focusing on a single aspect, such as reducing suspensions, may ignore RJ’s primary goal of building the school community, which may, in turn, undermine RJ’s overall effectiveness.

RJ can help phase out the school-to-prison pipeline for many students of color.  However, it must be implemented comprehensively across the school for it to be successful, and teachers must be supported throughout the process.  Simply adopting a portion of RJ, such as when a teacher adopts circles in his or her classroom, will likely benefit those students in that particular classroom.  Schools that want to eliminate the pipeline for students of color should consider implementing all RJ aspects to strengthen and build the school community and make things right for all students affected when harm occurs.

Deb Shartle
About Deb Shartle (3 Articles)
Deborah is a third-year law student at Campbell Law and currently serves as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Prior to law school, Deborah earned her bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Houston. She served in the United States Air Force before obtaining a second bachelor’s degree in mathematics as well as her master’s degree in secondary education from Cedar Crest College. Last spring, she participated in the Campbell Law Innocence Project. Last summer, she served as a legal intern at Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Central Intake Unit in Raleigh where she worked primarily on eviction, custody, and benefit cases. This year, she hopes to work with Score Academy to help develop a plan for reintegrating students back to their home school after long-term suspension. After law school, she is interested in working within the public sector in the fields of education or disability law.