Revisiting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

by David Backes

School to Prison PipelineThe Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley published a report detailing a pilot program aimed at students of color and low-income families to shift from a zero-tolerance school discipline policy to a restorative justice policy. The report, “School-Based Restorative Justice as an Alternative to Zero-Tolerance Policies: Lessons from West Oakland,” [PDF download] draws evidence from Cole Middle School in West Oakland and finds that the restorative approach can help combat the school-to-prison pipeline and have a positive effect on disproportionate minority contact in the juvenile justice system.

The report’s executive summary has a great introduction to the major concepts included in the report (emphasis mine):

Restorative justice is an alternative to retributive zero-tolerance policies that mandate suspension or expulsion of students from school for a wide variety of misbehaviors including possession of alcohol or cigarettes, fighting, dress code violations, and cursing. Although zero-tolerance policies have resulted in substantial increases in student suspensions and expulsions for students of all races, African American and Hispanic/Latino youth are disproportionately impacted by a zero-tolerance approach.

Under zero tolerance, suspensions and expulsions can directly or indirectly result in referrals to the juvenile and adult criminal systems where African American and Hispanic/Latino youth are also disproportionately represented. This phenomenon, part of a process that criminalizes students, has been termed the school-to-prison pipeline.

Major findings from the report include:

1. Restorative justice at Cole Middle School served as a practical alternative to zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, strengthened relationships in the school, and helped students and adults deal with violence in their community.

2. Suspensions declined by 87 percent and expulsions declined to zero at Cole Middle School during the implementation of restorative justice.

3. Students assume greater responsibility and autonomy because of restorative justice, potentially challenging traditional roles and relationships in a school community.

4. Restorative justice principles must be consistently applied, and restorative justice practitioners must be an enduring force for a successful school-based program.

5. School-based restorative justice must be grounded in the norms, values, and culture of the students, school, and surrounding community.

The full report is available online as a PDF download for those interested in digging deeper into the school-to-prison pipeline and its effects on disproportionate minority contact.

juvenile-justice-system_David-BackesDavid Backes writes the Friday news roundup for Reclaiming Futures and contributes articles about juvenile justice reform and adolescent substance abuse treatment to He has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Santa Clara University. David works as an account executive for Prichard Communications.






0 thoughts on “Revisiting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

  1. Karen South Carpenter

    Is anyone out there aware of funders who want to support Restorative Justice efforts? My school system is willing to pilot it and I have an implementation plan ready to go. I just can’t find anyone willing to invest in it. The initial costs are moderately high due to the intense training required. (As the report notes, this isn’t something where you walk in and say, “Okay, we’re going to do things differently now.” There is a significant learning curve and multiple paradigm shifts which need to be addressed.) However, after the initial training, costs are negligible. Any guidance or feedback will be greatly appreciated!


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