Strategies, Tools for Educators to Dismantle School-to-Prison Pipeline

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nance-jasonMany educators view a new school year as an opportunity for improvement, a fresh start and a chance to reset, especially with respect to student discipline. Several years ago, as a public middle school math teacher serving disadvantaged students in a large metropolitan area, I quickly learned that even the first few moments of the first class were critical to establishing an appropriate environment for students to thrive.

As educators everywhere prepare for a new school year and contemplate how they can improve their schools and the learning experiences of their students, I hope they think deeply about what changes they can make to keep students in school and out of the justice system while still promoting safe, orderly learning environments.

I also hope they think deeply about how they can reduce racial disparities relating to discipline and academic achievement. Strategies and tools to help educators with changes they can make this year are available for free in my recent article in the Arizona State Law Journal. “Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Tools for Change” can be downloaded here.

All of us should remember that the consequences associated with detaining, arresting and excluding students from school are devastating for both the students and our society as a whole. Multiple empirical studies show that incarcerating a youth leads to reinforcement of violent attitudes and behaviors, mental health problems, limited educational, employment, military and housing opportunities, a decreased likelihood of graduating from high school and future involvement in the justice system.

The cost of incarcerating one youth is shockingly high, averaging about $149,000 a year. But even more shocking are long-term costs, such as lost future earnings, recidivism, lost tax revenue and additional Medicare and Medicaid spending, estimated by some to range between $7.9 billion to $21.47 billion a year.

Student arrests (even those that do not lead to incarceration), suspensions and expulsions also take a toll. They often lead to lower academic achievement, lower graduation rates and, eventually, more youth involvement in the justice system, all of which have profound negative consequences on the lives of youth, their families and our nation.

In addition, educators often fail to realize that overly punitive school environments generally do not lead to the student outcomes we want, even for the students who are better-behaved. Empirical studies suggest, for example, that overly punitive environments promote student disengagement, resentment, alienation, frustration and distrust. They can destabilize the learning environment, foster increased disorder over the long run and depress academic achievement, even for better-behaved students who remain at school. These environments generally do not attract experienced teachers and academically-minded students and families with other options, which can further depress school environments.

It is critical that educators create safe, orderly environments where teachers can teach and students can learn. But rather than overly relying on school resources officers, metal detectors and harsh disciplinary practices such as suspensions, expulsions and referrals to law enforcement, school administrators and teachers must focus on establishing trust among members of the school community, improving school climate and strengthening lines of communication among students, teachers and parents. In a study of student and teacher safety in Chicago Public Schools, Matthew Steinberg, Elaine Allensworth and David Johnson concluded that “it is the quality of relationships between staff and students and staff and parents that most strongly defines safe schools.”

There are several evidence-based initiatives that educators and lawmakers can immediately support and implement to construct the infrastructure needed to build safe schools where students thrive. In fact, educators can implement many of these recommendations without dramatically increasing their costs by shifting and prioritizing their current resources. These initiatives include social and emotional learning, restorative justice, School-Wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and improving data collection.

In addition, school officials can create safer learning environments by improving the classroom instruction and management skills of teachers. Educators routinely blame students when they misbehave. While students must take responsibility for their behavior and actions and be accountable for wrongdoing, researchers frequently observe (and most educators know) that students who misbehave in the presence of one teacher often behave very well in the presence of another.

In fact, empirical studies document the strong relationship that exists between a teacher’s ability to engage students and manage a class and student behavior. Empirical studies also reveal the strong relationship that exists between academic underachievement and student misbehavior. Students often act out because they are frustrated with their inability to understand classroom material and meet academic expectations. When students realize that the traditional academic process may not benefit them (i.e., they may not graduate, attend college or get a well-paying job), they have fewer incentives to behave, stay in school and try to meet teachers’ expectations.

There are examples of educators who have turned around unstable and low-performing schools by focusing on improving the classroom instruction and teachers’ management skills. For instance, Ken Parshall worked with his teachers and staff to improve McKay High School in Warm Springs, Oregon, a low-performing school in a neighborhood with active gang activity. He worked with his teachers and staff to improve classroom instruction and management skills, promote a healthier, safer learning environment and boost students’ academic achievements.

He did this by implementing a “medical-rounds” classroom observation program to identify areas needed for improvement and providing support for enhancing teachers’ skills in the classroom. In addition, he formed professional learning community teams to discuss data identifying student academic weaknesses and ways to address those weaknesses, including successful teaching strategies. He also developed a system to address the needs of struggling students through extra tutoring and classes.

Further, the school administrators shifted the management of students with behavioral problems to behavioral specialists, counselors and others so the administrators could focus on helping teachers improve their classroom instruction and management skills. While not all schools have the resources to do what Parshall did, administrators may discover that implementing at least some of his strategies will generate significant improvement in the areas of safety, student behavior, school climate and academic achievement.

It is also critical that educators address racial disparities associated with academic achievement and discipline. While there are several reasons for these disparities, it is becoming more clear that one of the causes is the racial biases of educators, which manifest themselves principally in unconscious forms. Substantial empirical research suggests that all of us have implicit biases that operate outside of our conscious awareness — biases that can negatively affect our thoughts, attitudes, perspectives, actions and decision-making toward members of various social groups.

Accordingly, even educators who consciously believe they are egalitarians can operate under unconscious biases that affect their actions and decisions toward students of various racial groups. It is important that schools provide implicit bias training for all employees who interact with and make decisions about students. It is also important to teach educators to apply neutralizing routines, particularly when they find themselves in what Kent McIntosh, Erik Girvan, Robert Horner and Keith Smolkowski describe as a vulnerable decision point.

Implicit racial biases tend to manifest themselves most often when a person faces a point of vulnerability such as fatigue, stress, time pressure or an inundation of information. Once school officials, educators and others identify school-specific vulnerability points, they can undertake routines of self-review to minimize the effects of implicit racial bias on their decision-making.

At the beginning of this new school year, I hope educators, lawmakers, parents and other community members begin discussing what they can do collectively to help students better avail themselves of the educational opportunities they have before them, keep students out of the justice system and reduce the alarming racial disparities relating to student discipline and academic achievement. Indeed, the evidence suggests that they are in a position to do much more than they may realize.

Jason P. Nance, J.D., Ph.D., is an associate professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and the associate director for education law and policy at the Center on Children and Families. He also was the reporter for the American Bar Association’s Joint Task Force on Reversing the School-to-Prison Pipeline. A former public school teacher, he is the author of numerous articles on education law and policy. He can be reached at or 352-273-0992.

One thought on “Strategies, Tools for Educators to Dismantle School-to-Prison Pipeline

  1. Investing in high quality early learning, especially for families of low income, will drastically impact the numbers in the school-to-prison-pipeline.