YCS: School-to-Prison Pipeline

“[The] Students Trapped in the School-to-Prison Pipeline report assumes the very best of intentions of educators and administrators who are confronted with complex problems in their schools. It also assumes the very best of intentions of the people of Michigan who, because of their commitment to the most basic notions of fairness, will not consciously and deliberately defend discriminatory discipline.”

[The] report documents the disproportionate suspensions of public students of African descent in a significant number of school districts throughout Michigan. The School-to-Prison Pipeline problem experienced by these students and others is due in significant part to the following:

  1. Lack of universal access to quality education;
  2. Institutional obstacles that limit educational opportunities of children enrolled in school;
  3. The loss of educational opportunities by large numbers of students because competing institutional concerns displace consideration of what is in the best interest of the child;
  4. Sometimes insurmountable obstacles to restoration of lost educational opportunities;
  5. The criminalization of students who lose their educational opportunities.

These problems are manifested in the following specific ways:


Children have no “right” to an education. Michigan’s constitution [Art. 8, Section 2] requires only that the state “maintain and support” a system of free schools in a nondiscriminatory manner. By contrast, the constitutions of more than 30 states require, in some form, that the state provide all children with a quality education. Michigan is one of only eleven states that fail to give students a right to a quality or adequate education. Thus, when Michigan’s racially disparate suspension and expulsion patterns and other factors remove large numbers of children from the educational system, many have no prospects for access to additional education or the means to re-enter the educational system.


Michigan’s “zero tolerance” expulsion law is broader in scope than federal law requires, and it increases the chances of expulsion for all students, including students of African descent who are already expelled at high rates. The impact of this law on expulsion rates is compounded when administrators decline to exercise permissible discretion when considering whether the law’s harsh penalties are appropriate.

The absence of uniform procedural guidelines for suspensions and expulsions has sometimes resulted in failure to provide adequate opportunities for accused students to be heard and to otherwise defend themselves against accusations of misconduct.

The absence of safeguards against cultural misunderstanding, cultural ignorance and cultural conflict that account to some extent for disproportionate discipline of black students.

Some school districts’ failure to comply with laws that require evaluation and/or treatment of students with disabilities prior to suspension or expulsion.

Mechanical application of rules leading to suspension and expulsion without use of discretion or individualized consideration of circumstances that indicate that exclusion of certain children from school is inappropriate.


In a significant number of Michigan school districts, students of African descent are suspended and expelled at rates that are disproportionately high relative to their representation in the school population. In contrast, white students tend to be disciplined at rates that are proportionate to their numbers, or disproportionately less than their representation in the school population.

Many students who are suspended longterm, or who are expelled drop out of school altogether.


The process for readmission to school after expulsion is complex and may present insurmountable obstacles to low-income families that lack the wherewithal to prepare and timely submit required petitions.

Many students who have been suspended long-term or expelled have no alternative opportunities for learning or other productive activities. A 1985 Attorney General’s opinion that concluded that school districts are not required to establish or maintain alternative education programs has apparently contributed to confusion about whether, when and by whom these programs should be established. Nevertheless, Michigan’s statutory framework suggests that in some way the state is responsible for providing alternative education opportunities to students who are excluded from school for extended periods of time.


When school administrators refer some student discipline matters to law enforcement agencies, there is a consequent criminalization of many students whose offenses would otherwise have been dealt with entirely by school officials.

The growing presence in schools of “school resource officers” and police personnel generally has resulted in not only arrests of students on school premises, but also incidents of police misconduct on school grounds.

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It costs the state more to maintain a prisoner than it does to educate a student. This results in not only an immediate financial loss, but a long-term loss of the productive capacity of former students.

(Recommendations are available on page 13-14 of the ACLU report.)


At the very heart of Michigan’s school-to-prison pipeline problem is the disproportionate exclusion of students of African descent from public schools. Once black students leave educational programs, they are in many cases immediately sent careening through the slippery pipeline toward prison. The statistics that demonstrate that black students are disproportionately losing their educational opportunities are both telling and disturbing. The loss of educational opportunities occurs most often because of suspensions, expulsions, and the dropout problem.


Although in the year 2000, African-descended students constituted only 17% of the student population nationwide, they were 34% of students who were suspended. As a consequence, students of African descent were 2.6 times as likely to be suspended as white students.

In Michigan, the most consistent problem in most of the school districts examined is disproportionate discipline of students of African descent. Conversely, in many districts, suspension rates for white students are in proportion to their representation in the student body, or their suspension rates are lower than what would be expected for a population of their size. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as “the suspension gap.”


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The statistics that show the connection between longterm suspension/expulsion and prison may not alarm Michigan communities where there is a perception that residents are insulated from these problems, but there is a quantifiable impact on all regions of the state. Consider the cost to taxpayers of providing a student with a public education versus providing all of his/her/their necessities of life in a prison. The Michigan Department of Corrections reports that the state spends about $30,000 per year on each of the more than 50,000 persons incarcerated in its facilities. On the other hand, the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the annual cost of providing a public school education for a child is between $5,000 and $10,000. Entanglement in the criminal justice system is a high price to pay (by everyone) for school misconduct. This leads logically to questions about how student misconduct leads to criminal prosecution.


In Michigan, efforts to document this practice have met with limited success because a number of school districts contend that they do not maintain records of these referrals. This is particularly true of districts that have school resource officers on the premises. Some school administrators claim that once a matter is referred to these police officers whose “beat” is the schools, the school district makes no further efforts to track or document the case.


All available credible evidence leads to the inescapable conclusion that Michigan must make quality education a right for every child, and that educational opportunities must be preserved. This necessarily means a de-emphasis of disciplinary measures that remove children from schools. It also means that when exceptional circumstances require the exclusion of students from conventional academic programs, that they be placed in alternative educational programs that allow them to continue the process of learning.

Furthermore, exploding prison populations and the consequent devastating social and economic consequences to the broader society compel movement away from those practices that transform relatively minor infractions of school rules into matters under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system. Educators, in consultation with law enforcement professionals must begin to explore, as an alternative, diversionary and rehabilitative programs that can be used for school offenses that are now routinely referred for criminal prosecution.

The cost of the School-to-Prison Pipeline to Michigan is not only fiscal. It is the cause of inexcusable waste of human potential that might otherwise be of service to the state. The best evidence of this is found in accounts provided by those who are impacted most directly. When reflecting on his school experience, a Michigan prisoner explained:

“I was in ‘in-house suspension’ in [a] Michigan public school. I felt abandon[ed] and became desensitize[d] to be isolated and disassociated from friends, and moreover the teachers. Because in my mind, school was a place to learn and have fun, but when the teachers began to punish and outcast me, I developed the attitude of ‘I don’t care,’ and said rejection socialize[d] me to bond with others who had undevelop[ed] and un-civilized brains. Then I started to think, this is the way things should be, so I felt unaffected by associating with criminals outside of school, because they were my peers in in-house suspension. The bottom line is, it seem[s] to me, suspension prepared me for prison cells, and juvenile hall. I don’t see how isolation civilize[s] a child.”

Related Content:

Menzel, Scott. “Structuring a Better Investment in Our Youngest Residents.” October 2013

Norman, Naomi. “Are our students ready for post-high school success?” January 2013

Aguirre, Robert and Gibson, Robert; National Institute of Corrections, Jails Division. “Local Assessment Washtenaw County.” October 2003

Washtenaw County Jail Overcrowding Task Force. “Washtenaw County: a Just and Safe Community.” June 2003

Michigan Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “Discipline in Michigan Public Schools and Government Enforcement of Equal Education Opportunity.” March 1996