The school-to-prison pipeline (STPP) is a commonly used metaphor that was developed to describe the many ways in which schools have become a conduit to the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The STPP metaphor encompasses various disciplinary policies and practices that label students as troublemakers, exclude students from school, and increase their likelihood of involvement in delinquency, juvenile justice, and subsequent incarceration. Many external forces promote these policies and practices, including high-stakes testing, harsh justice system practices and penal policies, and federal laws that promote the referral of certain school offenses to law enforcement. Empirical research confirms some of the pathways posited by STPP. For example, research has shown that out-of-school suspensions predict school dropout, justice system involvement and adult incarceration. However, research on some of the posited links, such as the impact of school-based arrests and referrals to court on school dropout, is lacking.
Despite gaps in the empirical literature and some theoretical shortcomings, the term has gained widespread acceptance in both academic and political circles. A conference held at Northeastern University in 2003 yielded the first published use of the phrase. Soon, it attained widespread prominence, as various media outlets as well as civil rights and education organizations (e.g., ACLU, the Advancement Project (they also use “schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track”), the National Education Association (NEA), and the American Federation of Teachers) referenced the term in their initiatives. More recently, the Obama administration used the phrase in their federal school disciplinary reform efforts. Despite its widespread use, the utility of STPP as a social scientific concept and model is open for debate.
Whereas some social scientists and activists have employed STPP to highlight how even non-criminal justice institutions can contribute to over-incarceration, other scholars are critical of the concept. Some scholars feel that the pipeline metaphor is too narrow and posits an overly purposeful or mechanistic link between schools and prisons; in fact, there is a much more complicated relationship that includes multiple stakeholders that fail our nation’s youth. Rather than viewing school policies and practices in isolation, critical scholars have argued that school processes of criminalization and exclusion are inextricably linked to poverty, unemployment, and the weaknesses of the child welfare and mental health systems. In short, the metaphor does not properly capture the web of institutional forces and missed opportunities that can push youth toward harmful choices and circumstances, often resulting in incarceration. Many reforms across the nation seek to dismantle STPP, including non-exclusionary discipline alternatives such as restorative justice and limiting the role of school police officers. Rigorous research on their effectiveness is needed.