illustration of the school to prison pipeline complex

How does the education system and the school-to-prison pipeline contribute to the over representation of black people in the Criminal Justice system?

by Chinwe Nwebube

The school to prison pipeline is a term used to describe the push of students out of schools and into prisons and represents a failure in our current education system. Black students are disciplined more harshly and often achieve lower marks due to disparities in teaching and treatment. Therefore, the school to prison pipeline can be considered a leading factor in the overrepresentation of black folks within the prison system. At its core, the school to prison pipeline is a result of the education system’s inability to meet the needs of its students. Specifically, the presence of anti-black racism in the education system has resulted in the large flow of the pipeline. Anti-black racism is global, insidious, and pervasive. It is the hate and fear of black people which in turn, drives national politics. This increases the representation of black people in prisons. Due to a system that is fundamentally driven by the dehumanization and exploitation of black bodies, there is a lack of effective and unbiased systems within the school. Ultimately there is a disparity between the degree of discipline between white and black students. A school system rooted in anti-black racism, discriminatory discipline and discrepancies in quality of education are factors that will be further examined in order to understand the role the pipeline plays in moving black youth directly to juvenile facilities and prisons.

School System Rooted in Anti-Black Racism

Critical race theory states that racism is a “normal and ingrained feature of our landscape” because racial privilege and related oppression are deeply established from both our history and our law (Brewer and Heitzeg 2008). The legal formation of race has produced systemic economic, political and social advantages for whites (Brewer and Heitzeg 2008). The abolition of slavery did not abolish the hidden racism in the law, but rather, created new methods of redirecting the law in favor of whites (Brewer and Heitzeg 2008).

The ideal instructor in society is one that has the ability to teach without bias or influence from the educational systems; One that would provide equal and substantial instruction to all students. Evidently this is not the case, as societal hierarchies and power dynamics based on race play too strong of an influence. The majority of instructors today in the United States are white women. These instructors often enter the education system with preconceived notions regarding students of colour and of low socioeconomic status (Irizarry 2010). Their curriculum reflects this idea and reinforces these stereotypical identities rather than challenge concepts of discrimination and oppression (Irizarry 2010). Due to this traditional Western mindset, many teachers are aversively racist. Aversive racists claim that they do not hold prejudice based on race however subconsciously feel unease towards people of colour (Irizarry 2010). Since instructors are unaware of their ineffectiveness in the classroom, it is difficult for change to occur in these institutions. The products of aversive racism in the classroom are disparities in the discipline and teaching of white students compared to students of colour.

Discriminatory Discipline

The school to prison pipeline flows in one direction. When black students are involved in the criminal justice system, it is difficult for them to re-enter the education system. There are policies set in place that encourage police presence at schools as well as harsher tactics, and automatic punishments that result in suspensions (Teaching Tolerance 2015). These “tough on crime” policies are large contributors to the flow of the pipeline (Teaching Tolerance 2015). Studies show that African Americans have a higher chance of suspension, expulsion and arrest than white students (Kim, Losen and Hewitt 2010, 34-50). Black students only make up 16% of the overall juvenile population in the United States yet make up 45% of juvenile arrests (Kim, Losen and Hewitt 2010, 34-50). When students of colour and white students commit the same offence, students of colour have a higher chance of being suspended, expelled or arrested for committing the same act (Kim, Losen and Hewitt 2010, 34-50). For example, in 2006 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Native American students claiming discriminatory discipline towards these groups of students (Kim, Losen and Hewitt 2010, 34-50). They alleged that it is was three times more likely for a Native American student to be suspended and twelve times more likely for them to be reported to the police, than a white student (Kim, Losen and Hewitt 2010, 34-50). The ACLU found many instances in which discriminatory discipline occurred (Kim, Losen and Hewitt 2010, 34-50). For example, a Native American student was arrested for putting a white student in a headlock and stating “he would break his neck”. However, a white student told a Native American girl that he wanted to “kill Indians” and see her “blood all over” and was not arrested (Kim, Losen and Hewitt 2010, 34-50). In another example, regarding the case of Sherpall v. Humnoke School District No. 5, the federal court found that the Arkansas school district discipline system was racially discriminatory (Kim, Losen and Hewitt 2010, 34-50). Teachers in Arkansas referred to black students as “niggers”, “blue gums”, and “coons” (Kim, Losen and Hewitt 2010, 34-50). It has been argued that higher rates of expulsions for students of colour may correlate to high rates of bad behaviour in school (Skiba et al. 2002). If so, the disparity in punishments would not be of racial bias (Skiba et al. 2002). Since there have been no such studies investigating this theory, one cannot argue that high rates of disruptive behaviour is valid reasoning for the disproportionality in punishments (Skiba et al. 2002).

The aversive racists placed in a teaching position, though subconscious, feel unease towards students of colour. These teachers have preconceived notions of blackness being threatening and dangerous due to an inherent fear of black people. This has been reinforced through a singular narrative that describes a monolithic black experience. They have a deep rooted fear of black students: a result of our country being built on the foundation of anti-black racism. In order to eliminate the threat of black students in the school permanently, they are lead into prisons by any means possible. As previously discussed, this includes more tough-on-crime policies and harsher disciplinary action. The close surveillance of poor black neighborhoods by police is a strategic way to target these communities and schools. As a result of white supremacy, black folks live in conditions that have made them more vulnerable to criminal activity and arrest. Discriminatory discipline can be considered a leading contributor to the school to prison pipeline ultimately resulting in a higher incarceration rate of black individuals. Discriminatory discipline is only a factor because of the creation of aversive racists due to an anti-black racist rooted education system. If anti-black racism could be eliminated from the education system, it is possible to greatly decrease the overall flow of the pipeline.

Discrepancies in Quality of Education

Higher incarceration rates are a combination of “tough-on-crime” policies in the criminal justice system and a lack of quality education that provides needed skill for employment (Hammond-Darling, Williamson, and Hyler 2007). Hirschi’s control theory states that society is a set of institutions that act to control and regulate rule-breaking behaviour (O’Grady 2011, 88-115). If an individual is bonded to society and conventional activities, they will not engage in crime (O’Grady 2011, 88-115). People abide by the law because they are tied to conventional society by social bonds; Social bonds are the degree to which an individual is integrated into the ideals and social ties of the community (O’Grady 2011, 88-115). The weaker the social bonds, the more likely an individual is to engage in crime (O’Grady 2011, 88-115). The lack of involvement in conventional activities results in a higher chance of crime participation (O’Grady 2011, 88-115). Unemployment due to a lack of education will decrease the degree to which an individual is involved in these conventional activities (O’Grady 2011, 88-115). As a result, one is more likely to engage or be exposed to criminal activity (O’Grady 2011, 88-115). Studies have shown that schools with large populations of black students have fewer resources than schools serving mostly white students (Hammond-Darling, Williamson, and Hyler 2007). Minority students are often segregated within schools and are targeted more as a result (Hammond-Darling, Williamson, and Hyler 2007). Many of these schools are so overpopulated that they have a more complex schedule that shortens school days and school years (Hammond-Darling, Williamson, and Hyler 2007). Exclusion from the classroom disrupts the student education and removes them from a structured environment, which can increase the likelihood for deviant behaviour (Kim, Losen and Hewitt 2010, 34-50). The most unequal education system lies in the United States as it provides students with significantly different learning opportunities based on social status (Hammond-Darling 2005). For example, Goudy Elementary School in Chicago which served mainly African American students, used fifteen-year-old textbooks, did not have any science labs, art or music teachers, and had two working bathrooms for 700 students (Hammond-Darling 2005). In the neighbouring town of New Tier that is 98% white, they provided its high school students with superior labs, up to date technology, multiple gyms and an Olympic pool (Hammond-Darling 2005). Also in 2001, students in California’s most segregated minority school were five times more likely to have under qualified teachers than those in predominantly white schools (Hammond-Darling 2005). Attention to these systematic differences is vital to improve the overall education system. If people do not recognize that students have different realities based on their social status, policies will continue to be created on the notion that it is the students, not the school circumstances that are the root of the unequal education.

White supremacy is the belief that white people should control society due to the belief that they are superior to all races. It is critical to also note that this belief of superiority is upheld by different systems of oppression such as patriarchy, capitalism and heteronormativity1. As mentioned previously, racial privilege and related oppression are ingrained features of our history and therefore are ingrained features of our present. White people dominating our society includes them dominating our education system.

1. A worldview that promotes heterosexuality as normal or preferred sexual orientation. The way in which gender and sexuality are separated categories based on a hierarchy.   

As a result, it is predestined that whites should have a better education than all other races. This includes better teachers, teaching facilities and materials. Education lays the foundation for the direction of people’s lives; it is necessary for social, political and economic participation. Since the system is created in order for white people to have the best education, they are technically the only race “fit” to participate in society. That leaves the rest, namely the black population, uneducated and therefore unable to participate. With this criteria, only one system is deemed “appropriate” for black individuals to contribute to: the prison system.

The school to prison pipeline is a main contributor to the over-representation of black people in the prison system. There is a discrepancy between the degree of discipline and quality of education between white and black students. Programs are being put in place in order to abolish the structure of the education system. For example, the Cradle to Prisons Pipeline is a campaign to reduce detention and incarceration by increasing support and services that are a necessity for children (Children’s Defense Fund 2015). This includes access to quality early childhood development, education services and accessible health and mental health programs (Children’s Defense Fund 2015). The Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC) also aims to dismantle the pipeline through education by expanding programs like Freedom Schools designed for black students (Children’s Defense Fund 2015). The Black Lives Matter movement also inspires communities to fight against the school to prison pipeline as an example of structural racism (Rethinking Schools 2015). When oppressive power structures that are structural and institutionalized are ignored, the over representation of black people in prisons is normalized (Brewer and Heitzeg 2008). When the law ignores racism, black people continue to be abused, manipulated and exploited while the structural persistence of racism is ignored (Brewer and Heitzeg 2008). In society it is important that we aim to establish equity as opposed to equality. Equality disregards power dynamics that are prevalent in society (ie. white supremacy, anti-black racism, etc.) and seeks to treat everybody the same. We must learn to recognize and navigate through these relationships. Ultimately the school to prison pipeline is rooted in anti-black racism. This must be fully addressed and eradicated to fix the system permanently.


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Hammond-Darling, Linda. 2004. “The Color Line in American Education: Race, Resources, and Student Achievement.”Du Bois Institute for African American Research 1(2): 213-246.
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Kim, Catherine., Daniel J. Losen., and Damon T. Hewitt. 2010. The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform, 34-50. New York: New York University Press.
O’Grady, William. 2011. “Classical Sociological Explanations of Crime”. In Crime in Canadian Context: Debates and Controversies, Second Edition, 88-115. Oxford University Press: Toronto.
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Skiba, Russel J., Robert S. Michael, Abra C. Nardo., and Reece L. Peterson. 2002. “The Color of Discipline: Sources of Racial and Gender Disproportionality in School Punishment.” The Urban Review 34(4): 317-342.
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Black and white Headshot of Chinwe smiling

Chinwe Nwebube is a second year Nigerian-Canadian student majoring in Human Kinetics at the University of Guelph. She currently acts as the Communications and Promotions Officer on the CJ Munford Centre Collective, a center for racialized students on the University of Guelph campus. After witnessing the outburst of racism that took place after an on campus rally in the fall, she was motivated to further investigate institutionalized racism. This resulted in her writing this essay about anti-black racism within the education system and its contribution to the over representation of black people in the prison system.

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