A Sociological Perspective on the School-to-Prison Pipeline

By Emily Walsh



By 1917, all states in the United States of America passed laws making it a requirement for all school-age children to attend school (Education, 2018). With the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, it made it a constitutional right for all students to receive the same education (Zinn, 2003). But to this day, students suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation are nearly 3 times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year (ACLU, n.d.). This system, where low class, minority students, mainly black males, are disproportionately funneled into the criminal justice system, is called the school-to-prison pipeline.


While the school-to-prison pipeline may be something that is fairly new to society, the roots to this injustice in this system have been prevalent in our country since its inception. As Howard Zinn (2003) states, racism is a result of a “complex web of historical threads” that have trapped blacks in America for centuries (p. 38). These people have fought for their rights on many  occasions to no avail. The Civil War resulted in an amendment that was used more to determine the rights of a corporation than a person between 1890 and 1910 (Zinn, p. 261) and the Civil Rights gained some, but not enough strides, as can be seen through the school-to-prison pipeline.

Racial stratification, which was created by those in the higher positions of power during the early years of the American colonies, has had lasting impacts on our society. Specifically, the stratification has impacted those weaker groups who were marginalized by the stratification and have been manipulated and discriminated against, as well as benefiting those placed in higher positions. This will be proven through a clear identification and outline of what stratification is, how it is created, and how it impacts all involved. Then there will be a discussion of the racial stratification within the American education system and the historical pretext with the goal of proving the white colonist created the seeds of racial marginalization within America that has led to issues such as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Definition of Terms

As in the title, this paper will be a sociological perspective so before discussion of the school-to-prison pipeline can begin, definition and background to the sociological understanding of time and history must be given.


Sociologists view time differently than the typical measures of time used in society (days, months, years) because of the subjects they are studying. Sociologist study human society and try to understand and measure the changes that occur within it. Many changes within a society do not happen overnight, nor do they happen in a year. Because of this sociologist tend to view time in terms of lifetimes, decades, or centuries, or in other words, enough time for real change to occur.


Such as in this paper, we will study how a stratification event came to be and how it impacts a society today. This is how sociologists study history, by analyzing the different groups within society and the distribution of power, status, and resources. To define terms, power is another way of describing influence or the ability to get your way despite resistance, status is the amount of prestige conferred upon a person or group, and resources are means of producing wealth. Those with more resources, power, and status have more opportunities, independence, and influence come their way. Resources lead to opportunities, power to independence, and status to influence. In the context of slavery, for example, a slave owner has the money (resources) to purchase slaves, the power to control them, and the status in society for it to be considered an acceptable occurrence. All of this translates into benefits for the slave owners, by giving them the independence from not having to do the laborious work, the opportunity to produce a considerable more wealth, and the power of influence over those in lesser positions in society. This is the sociological concept of stratification, in which those of a higher status are stratified (or layered) at the top and lower statuses at the bottom.

There is a distinction to be made between the terms “stratification” and “difference.” Differences are what cause people to be stratified; for example, less money, skin color, gender, nationality are all differences. Stratification can give sociologists clear ideas of the changes that occur in a society over time throughout history.

There are 4 main types of stratification: racial, gender, class, and global. Racial stratification is society holding certain races to higher statuses than other races. Gender stratification is quite simple: societies give different opportunities and access to resources to males and females. Class stratification, or social class stratification, is based on the wealth of a person/family. The more wealth a person has, the more opportunities they have by means of that wealth. Global stratification can be best described in terms of colonization and imperialism, were stronger nations are able to conquer weaker nations and take control.


Most groups, no matter their position, desire more influence, opportunity, and independence, which come from resources, power, and status that is the describing of a system called conflict theory. In society, there is a limit to the amount of influence, opportunity, and independence one can have, so the stratified groups work in cooperation with each other attempt to increase or maintain them. But, in the act of cooperation, stratified groups will always compete with one another for the limited resources, power, and status.

Historical Basis

The injustices to the black students in the American education system have been entrenched in our society from the day the colonists decided they needed to enter the African slave trade. Zinn (2003) traces the birth of slavery and racism in America in his second chapter entitled “Drawing the Colored Line” in his historical narrative of the United States’ called A People’s History of the United States. Zinn reasons slavery and racism in America were not a result of a natural process, but of conscious and deliberate decisions on the part of the settlers and give a multitude of reasons for this ranging from desperate and hungry settlers to manipulation of the ruling class to prevent rebellion and unity.


In the year of 1619, the Virginians were faced with starvation lacking the means necessary to grow and produce enough food to stay alive. Howard Zinn (2003) writes, “The first settlement had a hundred persons, who had one small ladle of barley per meal. When more people arrive, there was even less food” (p. 24). The white servants that had been brought over had only contracted their labor for a few years and of the settlers that came, many were skilled laborers or men of leisure in their past lives in England. As Zinn puts it, “Black slaves were the answer” (p. 25).

Compared to the Natives and the Europeans, the Africans had a sense of helplessness that made their subjection easier. This could be attributed to the fact that they were violently captured from their homeland and brought to a foreign country and stripped of all dignity. Owners of slaves went to great lengths to ensure their labor knew their place in society so they created a sort of curriculum to keep order amongst their labor. To quote Zinn (2003):

The system was psychological and physical at the same time. The slaves were taught discipline, were impressed again and again with the idea of their own inferiority to “know their place,” to see blackness as a sign of subordination, to be awed by the power of the master, to merge their interest with the master’s, destroying their own individual needs. To accomplish this there was the discipline of hard labor, the breakup of the slave family, the lulling effects of religion (which sometimes led to “great mischief,” as one slaveholder reported), the creation of disunity among slaves by separating them into field slaves and the more privileged house slaves, and finally the power of law and the immediate power of the overseer to invoke whipping, buring, mutilation, and death. Dismemberment was provided for in the Virginia Code of 1705. (p. 35)

But this does not go as far as to say they were complacent in their enslavement, which they were not. Zinn discusses numerous rebellions, escapes, fires, that occurred during this time.


Before racism was fully ingrained in society, white indentured servants were often treated in similar ways to black slaves. Seeing themselves in similar positions, the whites and blacks united together and rebelled. With growing fear of becoming outnumbered by the slaves and servants, those in the upper class took action. They decided to create a divide between the white servants and black slaves by proclaiming white men were superior to black and providing them with food, money, and a gun when their servitude was complete (Zinn, 2003, p. 37).

Slavery was beneficial to the colonists in more than one way.  In addition to providing the food supply for the colony, slavery turned out to be quite profitable. One slave owner, James Madison, made $257 a year on every slave he owned and would only have to spend $12-13 on keep (Zinn, p. 32).

The history of slavery in the United States is a prime example of racial stratification.  A group that possess more power, wealth, and resources was able to manipulate a group lesser than them, in this case capture and export Africans for labor. Racial stratification typically comes about through the implementation of social policy that excludes one or more groups (typically minorities). Such is the case in America, especially between poor whites and the slaves. The lawmakers had to create laws to give the whites more resources as to create a division between the allies. Furthermore, there was the establishment of the Slave Codes in the colonies in order to essentially keep the slaves “in their place.” The point is, the racial stratification in this country was established by purposeful decisions of those on the top to benefit them and their cause.

School-to-Prison Pipeline

The United States currently locks up approximately 2.3 million people, more than any other country in the world (Prison Policy Institute, 2018) into federal, state, and local facilities. Nearly 60,000 of these people are youth (ACLU, n.d.), who in other circumstances would be in school. This fast-track system of disproportionately sending students into prison or jail is called the school-to-prison pipeline. The school-to-prison pipeline defined:

School-to-Prison Pipeline means the policies and practices that are directly and indirectly pushing students of color out of school and on a pathway to prison, including, but not limited to: harsh school discipline policies that overuse suspension and expulsion, increased policing and surveillance that create prison-like environments in schools, overreliance on referrals to law enforcement and the juvenile justice system, and an alienating and punitive high-stakes testing-driven academic environment. (NEA, 2016)

The school-to-prison pipeline does not exist singularly on its own, just as slavery was not born out of natural causes. There is an intricate system within society that all measures up to this system.


The first thing to note is the funding within education. Within the past decade, public investment in education has declined; furthermore states have been cutting income tax, which provides a large portion of funding for public schools (Leachman, Masterson, & Figueroa, 2017). What is more is that there has been an increase in spending in security within schools. Schools are investing in video-surveillance equipment, controlled access into the building, electronic notification systems for emergencies, and security personnel (Porter, 2015).

It is no surprise that students that students that fall into the pipeline are poor, students with disabilities, and youth of color. However the group that is most stratified within this system are black students, who are suspended and expelled at the highest rates, despite similar rates of infraction (Heitzeg, 2009). Heitzeg also discusses the overrepresentation of crime in the media as well as the negative image TV constructs of African Americans. She further notes the impact of the media, by the creation what is referred to as a “culture of fear,” which people become overly fearful of “strangers.” The media claims the strangers to be young black and Latino males, further perpetuating stereotypes.

The growing concern about crime and wanting to protect children in schools, legislation was created in Congress to address these issues. In 1994 the Gun-Free Schools Act was passed and mandates a yearlong out-of-school suspension for any student who brings a weapon to school (Nelson & Lind, 2015). This act and others like it have soon come to be known as ‘zero-tolerance’ policies. “The term became widely adopted in schools in the early 1990s as a philosophy or policy that mandates the application of predetermined consequences, most often severe and punitive in nature, that are intended to be applied regardless of the gravity of behavior, mitigating circumstances, or situational context” (APA, 2008). This philosophy, in conjunction with the outsourcing of disciple to juvenile courts and officers by schools within the United States creates the perfect storm for the  school-to-prison pipeline within the American educational system.


According to the ACLU, “The “Zero-tolerance” discipline has resulted in Black students facing disproportionately harsher punishment than white students in public schools. While Black students only make up 16% of public school enrollment, they account for 42% of all students who have been suspended multiple times. This is in sharp contrast to white students who represent 51% of public school enrollment yet only constitute 31% of students who serve multiple suspensions.” Even when  schools are not specifically sending students into the justice system, disciplining them makes it more likely they will end up there (Nelson & Lind, 2015). Additionally, when it comes to enforcing the zero-tolerance policies, white people are more likely to see behaviors in white students as need for medical attention, but see the same behaviors in black students as cause for punishment (Heitzeg, 2009). This leads to the racial disproportionality that is seen in students that are funneled through the pipeline.

These facts do not benefit marginalized students in educational settings especially considering the lack of diversity within the educator workforce. According to the Department of Education (2016), during the 2011-2012 school year, 82 percent of public school teachers were white and 80 percent of principals were white. Not to mention the increased number of police and/or security guards within schools. Research has proven that many white educators view black students with the deficit perspective (Douglas, Scott, & Garrison-Wade, 2008). This perspective runs under the assumption that the family does not meet all the needs of the child and the student needs a teacher to fill in missing gaps. Douglas, Scott, and Garrison-Wade also discuss the fact that students of color are underperforming compared to white peers.

A further point must be made about the prison industry itself. Within the policy of the juvenile justice system there has come about a prison industrial complex, which can be defined as: “a self-perpetuating machine where the vast profits and perceived political benefits to policies that are additionally designed to ensure an endless supply of clients for the criminal justice system” (Heitzeg, 2009). Even more, it has been found that “three companies received $3.9 billion in revenue from mass incarceration and immigration detention and made $0.37 billion ($37 million) in profits” (Wagner & Rabuy, 2017). The system as it stands now has become in itself a sort of spoils system for those in positions of power and wealth.


When the former students are released from jail, their futures are not bright. Within five years of release, about three-quarters of released prisoners were rearrested (National Institute of Justice, 2014). Furthermore, Caitlin Curley (2016) reports that within 8 months of being released, only half of the ex-offenders were able to find work. And unless they were able to complete their education in prison, the former inmates’ job choices will be bleak.

In summary, the school-to-prison pipeline is another example of those in higher positions using their means to stratify groups. In schools, black students do not receive the same education their white peers do, which only pushes them out of school or to misbehave. The zero-tolerance policies that have been widely adopted by schools disproportionately identify students of color. And above all this, businesses and legislators benefit from having inmates fill cells. Even more, after going through the system, these people are put at a lifelong disadvantage compared to their peers.

The same racist seeds that were planted by the slave owners are the one’s educators, judiciaries, and lawmakers rely on when working with students of color. Those in power, legislators and business owners, have created a system that benefits from having prisoners in its cells, just as the colonists depended on slave labor to produce food for substance and wealth. The similarities continue, the unjust zero-tolerance policies that trap so many children are like the violent slave codes of the 18th century. The lessons slave owners instilled into their slaves resemble that of the deficit perspective so many teachers have when working with black students. Just as the slaves in the colonies were racially stratified, so are the black youth of America.


The aim of this paper was to prove the racial stratification division that was created in the early years of the American colonies is still impacting our society today. It was proven by looking at the colored line that was drawn when the white settlers created the institution of slavery in America that stratified black slaves. Then there was a discussion of the modern day impact of that line, the school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately funnels black students into prison cells. A clear connection between the stratification of the black slaves and the black students can be made, thus proving the conjecture that white colonist created the seeds of racial marginalization within America.

Sociologists use the past to understand the present. They understand views can become ingrained in a society and can take many generations to change. In the case of racism in the United States, we have seen major revolts occur in both the 19th and 20th centuries that brought about progress, but as the school-to-prison pipeline exemplifies not a major overhaul in the system. This idea can be used by leaders when they go to address the school-to-prison pipeline. Instead of simply addressing faulty policies, they need to observe the system as a function of society and understand they need to address the systemic racism and biases that are targeting African American students as well.

As a future educator, there are steps I can take to help set my students up for a successful future. The first thing I need to do is understand that I have my own biases, then analyze what they are and how they may impact my future students. I also need to understand that the students entering my classroom will all be coming from different ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Understanding is not enough, however, I also need to make an effort to learn from my students and their families so that I can best meet their needs and celebrate their backgrounds in my classroom.


Being informed about the issues my students face helps me when I go to advocate for their needs and rights, which in this political climate we are seeing a lot of. Take the teachers striking in Oklahoma, for example, who continued to strike after receiving their demand for higher wages because the needs of their students were not being met (Gunn, 2018). I can also prepare and empower my students so they too can take the stage, as the Parkland students have done. Schools too are showing a shift in their mindsets—abandoning zero-tolerance policies for community-centered “restorative justice” (Ruin, 2014). The goal of education is to produce a well-informed electorate, productive citizens, and lifelong learners and the best way to do this is to educate them, not send them to prison.

Racial stratification, or stratification in any form, is deplorable. Every human deserves the equal chance to reach their fullest potential without anyone or anything blocking their way. America was founded on the words:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity… (U.S. Constitution, Preamble)

The constitution is the document that binds and guides our society. Now, it is time for the actions of our society to match.

Websites for further information

Color Lines- Here’s How to Find Out How Racist Your Kids’ School Is
Grim Jackson’s Do You Hear Us? Video for NEA’s EdJustice
Edutopia- Restorative Justice: Resources for Schools
neaToday- The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Time to Shut it Down
Teaching Tolerance- The School-to-Prison Pipeline
ACLU- The School-to-Prison Pipeline





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