The Schools to Prison Pipeline: Arrested at School over Jolly Ranchers

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

I wish that title was an exaggeration. But a thirteen year old kid in Oklahoma was arrested by his principal for the infraction of taking some Jolly Ranchers and Taco Bell coupons. Taco. Bell. Coupons. And candy. Not from a store, mind you, but while walking around the halls of his grade school. If only this were unique; if only this were an irregular outrage. But it’s another facet of the Schools to Prison Pipeline

Kids are arrested at schools all through these here United States of Freedom for petty stuff like talking back to their teachers, cursing, getting into fights, and pilfering some candy.

In districts across the country, the presence of police inside public schools has led to rising rates of arrests of students for minor violations of disciplinary codes, for simple youthful hijinks that in another era would have landed a student in the principal’s office. The idea of the “teachable moment,” turning a student error into a learning opportunity, is less likely in a schoolhouse where handcuff-wielding cops teach the lesson.

“Things a police officer might not arrest someone in a bar fight for, you’re seeing them make arrests in school for. There are a lot of children arrested for disorderly conduct, which has a very subjective definition. Whoever is standing there gets to define it. It could be a student who refuses to sit down in class, or a spitball,” said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy and policy group.

What causes this pipeline? There are several named throughout. Of course we hear of the for-profit prisons problem.   Privately-secured prisons, which are run on public money, need to be filled in order for Clink, Inc. to turn a good profit. And that’s part of the problem, but hardly the majority factor. Another cause would be the continuation of Zero Tolerance Rules, which often lead to expulsions from school (which lessens the chance that a student will graduate from high school, also setting them up for a harder life) as well as time in jail. In New York City, 65% of school-related summonses were under the very loose term “disorderly conduct .” Then there’s the fear of gangs and the ridiculously costly and ineffective Wars on Terror and Drugs. And, of course, disproportionate poverty and institutional racism.

Basically, it boils down to overzealous Law & Order. A law and order system that repeatedly beats down the backs of Black, Latino, and poor students and keeps communities in their respective status quo. Whether this is intentional or not (or a mixture) hardly matters for the effects are the same: It is detrimental to Black and Latino males and their communities. Seventy percent of students reported by their schools for arrest are black or Latino. This is not only happening in conservative areas, either. Seventy-five percent of students turned in for arrest in Chicago Public Schools are black, yet black students only make up 40% of the district’s population. In New York City alone, 5 arrests are made a day at the schools – the overwhelming majority black males.

This rises in educational criminalization is startling because it leads to significantly fewer options for students already surrounded by poverty and violence and with few tools to know how to adequately address the stress in their lives. Children who go to jail or juvenile detention are likely to return, and return and return. The pattern becomes set. And the pattern of an unjust and racially-discriminatory justice system was already set before:  Where roughly 1/3 of all black males will spend some time behind bars at least once in their lives. Where black men are four times as likely to face time in jail for drug possession as white counterparts, even though the rates for use are the same. Where black males spend an average of 20% longer locked up in federal prison for violations of the same crime as white peers (source). And where black and Latino men combined make up one third of the general population of males, yet two-thirds of the incarcerated population.

The pattern was already abysmal, but the Schools to Prison pipeline furthers the inequality gap. Remember who caused the most harm during the last decade – how many Wall St bankers have faced jail time for the economic violence they’ve done? But throw around some words at a school?

It is particularly a pattern that does not sit well in education. School should be a place for young people to grow as human beings in society, for kids to begin exploring their full potential. Schools should be safe zones where students worry about grades and relationships, not whether or not they’ll be sent to the clink. For far too many students, they have a list longer than U2’s “Numb” to obey. A school that operates as a port of entry for prisons is not a place to concentrate on learning – at least not for the lessons we want to teach our children.

I propose that as progressives make headway against the War on Drugs and for Same Sex Marriage and LGBTQ rights, we also seek to end the Schools to Prison Pipeline by rooting out its causes. No kid should end up in jail for wanting some Jolly Ranchers. Let alone Taco Bell coupons.


When he’s not riding both his city’s public transit system and evil mayor, Jasdye teaches at a community college and writes about the intersection of equality and faith - with an occasional focus on Chicago - at the Left Cheek blog and on the Left Cheek: the Blog Facebook page. Check out more from Jasdye in his archives as well!


Facebook comments