Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal

, Volume 33, Issue 1, pp 15–24

The School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Critical Review of the Punitive Paradigm Shift



This paper reviews evidence of the school-to-prison pipeline, a confluence of two child- and adolescent-caring systems—schools and juvenile courts—that simultaneously shifted over the past generation from rehabilitative to punitive paradigms. While there was crossover impact between these systems, the movements were both independent and inter-dependent. In the school systems, and particularly those that are overburdened and underfinanced, many students have been increasingly suspended and expelled due to criminalizing both typical adolescent developmental behaviors as well as low-level type misdemeanors: acting out in class, truancy, fighting, and other similar offenses. The increased use of zero tolerance policies and police (safety resource officers) in the schools has exponentially increased arrests and referrals to the juvenile courts. While impacting many, unfortunately, these changes disproportionately affect vulnerable children, adolescents, and their families. Thus, millions of young people have become encapsulated in harmful punitive systems. Very few of these young people are actually appropriately involved, in that they do not pose safety risks to their schools or communities. Thus, the school-to-prison pipeline does not improve school or community safety.


School Discipline Prison Pipeline Safety Adolescent 


The United States school districts and juvenile courts were never intended to operate in a collaborative paradigm. Unfortunately, over the past 30 years a partnership among schools and courts has developed through a punitive and harmful framework, to the detriment of many vulnerable children and adolescents. This phenomenon is often referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline” (Kang-Brown et al. 2013) or “school pathways to the juvenile justice system” (Marsh 2014). This pipeline is best understood as a set of policies and practices in schools that make it more likely that students face criminal involvement with the juvenile courts than attain a quality education (Advancement Project et al. 2011). The evidentiary impact of these policies and disproportionate impact on many of the most at risk children and adolescents supports the use of the more harsh “school-to-prison pipeline” terminology (Mallett 2013).

Most of the young people involved in these harsh discipline systems among the schools and juvenile courts need not be, for they are minimal safety risk concerns. In other words, most students pose little to no threat of harm to other students, their schools, or their communities. However, those students involved in the pipeline, and in particular those who are suspended or expelled from school or subsequently held in juvenile justice facilities, have complicated problems and poor long-term outcomes (Advancement Project et al. 2011). These problems, though, are often part of the explanation for the children and adolescents’ initial involvement in the discipline systems: poverty, trauma, mental health difficulties, and/or developmental and cognitive deficits, among others (Mallett 2013). For those students ultimately disciplined within the school-to-prison pipeline, it is a system that is difficult to escape (American Psychological Association 2008).

Systematic Review Method

This systematic review of the literature focused on the following empirical questions: (1) what is the history of school discipline? (2) is the school-to-prison pipeline real, and if so, who does it impact? (3) what are the outcomes of school discipline policies across stakeholders? and, (4) do these policies make schools safer? To answer these questions, the review search was completed of the following databases: Social Work Abstracts, SocIndex, ERIC, Criminal Justice Abstracts, PsychInfo, and Psychology and Behavioral Sciences Collection; as well as gathering all relevant policy papers and discussions across various stakeholders and interested parties. The database searches utilized the following terms, both individually and in combination with each other: school discipline, school-to-prison pipeline, history, impact, school safety, outcomes, disproportionate, zero tolerance, school resource officers, special education, delinquency, juvenile, detention, incarceration, trauma, policy, and practice.

Manuscript Presentation

The findings and analysis from the literature is presented in four parts. First, the historical background of the education and juvenile justice systems are reviewed, showing both distinguishing and similar pathways over time, as well as the disproportionate impact of violent school shootings. Second, the impact of these policies is thoroughly examined across stakeholders—students, school personnel, and policy makers. Third, an evaluation is completed of the evidence that the school-to-prison pipeline exists and finds many at-risk and vulnerable children and adolescents are disproportionately involved; problem vulnerabilities that are significantly relevant to the social work professions. And, fourth, a discussion of what social workers can do next.

Schools and Juvenile Courts

The schools and juvenile courts have not historically been mired in the discipline dispensation techniques utilized today, but there was always a focus on control of young people, particularly those difficult or troubling to manage (Insley 2001). The balance among education, discipline, and school management has had challenges over time (Hanson 2005; Steeves and Marx 2014). Since the 1800s many schools utilized corporal punishment, with remnants of these discipline techniques still incorporated as regular classroom management practice into the 1960s and 1970s (Adams 2000). Though as school populations exponentially grew during this time period and corporal punishment became less acceptable and effective, other techniques were employed including suspensions and expulsions of disruptive students from school (Hyman and McDowell 1979). However, because of legal challenges, and in particular the Goss v. Lopez Supreme Court decision (419 U.S. 565, 1975) which found due process violations in the suspension and expulsion of students without hearings, schools altered their policies to include in-school suspensions. These alternative suspensions removed disruptive students from the classroom but kept them inside the school to complete their work (Heitzeg 2014; Marsh 2014). These more rehabilitative efforts were favored by most school administrators through the 1980s until the growth of mandatory disciplinary outcomes for disruptive students became the norm (Jones 1996).

There were a number of factors that impacted the schools and juvenile courts, independently and inter-dependently, leading this march toward today’s punitive paradigm. As reviewed and explained in the following sections, the reasons for the establishment of the school-to-prison pipeline, though with differential impact depending on the local schools districts, juvenile courts, and communities, included a number of explanatory factors. These included the movement in the 1980s toward a tough on crime approach in both adult and juvenile courts, as evidenced by the “three strikes and you’re out” laws and the large numbers of youthful offenders transferred to adult criminal courts (Mallett 2007); rising rates of juvenile arrests for violent crimes in the 1980s and concerns, though incorrect, that young people were increasingly dangerous (Puzzanchera and Hockenberry 2010); passage and enactment of the 1994 Gun Free Schools Act; the impact and aftermath of the 1999 Columbine, and other, school shootings (Muschert et al. 2014); establishment of zero tolerance disciplinary policies across most schools nationwide (Verdugo 2002); the increased utilization and federal funding of police officers (school resource officers) in schools (Justice Policy Institute 2011); declining school funding; the resegregation of schools by race and class (NAACP 2005); and the No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) focus on test scores and related consequences (Heitzeg 2014).

From Education to Discipline

Policy makers, practitioners, and involved parties do not set forth to harm children or adolescents either in school or juvenile justice settings. Most stakeholders and policy decisions have the best interests of young people as a focus, attaining these objectives through promotion of effective learning, education accomplishments, rehabilitation, and avoidance of criminological behaviors, among others. Within this framework, blame is not the intent in analysis of the school-to-prison pipeline. However, almost all social policies have unintended consequences (Marx 1981), as is the case with the policies that established this disciplinary regime.

In addition, no two schools are exactly alike (nor are juvenile courts), and their anti-violence policies thus differentiate accordingly. Disciplinary implementation, enforcement procedures, and utilization are different according to school size, location, and demographic makeup (Arum 2003; Kupchik and Monahan 2006). Yet, a number of themes that increased punitive policies across schools have been identified: as school enrollment increases, anti-violence and discipline policies increase; urban schools have the highest proportion of discipline policies; and anti-violence polices are practiced more frequently both in the southern and western states, in schools with higher minority student populations, and in schools with higher enrollments in free or reduced price lunch programs—these last two school characteristics are often inter-related (Muschert and Peguero 2010).

The Rise of School Violence: Myth Versus Reality

The preponderance of school anti-violence policies across a vast majority of districts have created what has been called the “New American School,” an environment of social control and fear that is more prison-like in efforts to maintain safety (Hirschfield 2008); and is particularly true for many urban secondary schools (Levy-Pounds 2014). Historically, there have been eras when youth violence was perceived as problematic, including the 1960s and 1970s where safety concerns were often inter-related with civil rights and school population shifts, impacting minority students disproportionately in school exclusionary policies (Children’s Defense Fund 1975). However, the more recent shift toward discipline policies in the 1990s was exceptional in the impact on schools and related youth-caring systems (Kang-Brown et al. 2013).

The 1980s and 1990s spawned fears and media reports of young people, often minorities, committing horrific crimes, “wilding” events, gang violence, and concern for the emergence of the “juvenile super-predator” were wholly disproportionate to the realty of youth violence (Walker et al. 2012; Welch et al. 2002). While the commission of violent crimes—homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, and rape—by young people peaked in 1994, these rates have plummeted for the past two decades (Puzzanchera and Hockenberry 2010). Nonetheless, state and federal legislation was enacted throughout the 1990s and early 2000s that increased punitive outcomes for many adolescents, including trying more as adults, expanding the severity of penalties, and minimizing rehabilitative alternatives (Griffin 2008; Mallett 2013). These policy changes and perception problems across the country set the stage for the movement toward control and discipline within the schools, and as noted, particularly urban schools. However, when this punitive paradigm was impacted by the fallout from school shooting incidents, movements toward school lock downs and more prison-like security environments exponentially progressed across all school districts (Cornell 2006).

The 1999 Columbine incident was not the first school shooting of this era, but was the most deadly of the tragedies, had the greatest impact on public perceptions, was covered more extensively by the media, and, more significantly, reinforced and motivated the security environment movement within schools (Fuentes 2014; Giroux 2003; Muschert and Peguero 2010). In the decade before the Columbine tragedy there were other school shooting incidents with far less media coverage. These included Bethel Regional High School in Alaska, Pearl High School in Mississippi, Health High School in Kentucky, Frontier Middle School in Washington, and Thurston High School in Oregon (Muschert 2009). The 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut have reignited some of these disproportionate fears and increased established school violence prevention policies. Most of these shootings occurred in what many families felt were “safe” school districts—white, Suburban, and middle class, leading to the increased fear that these tragic incidents could happen anywhere (Fuentes 2014; Kupchik and Bracy 2009). A new brand of adolescent violence or predator was now feared at hand, a transition that also reinforced and reignited the idea of a teenage super-predator (Dilulio 1995; Hirschfield 2010). While these school incidents were tragic, caused the deaths of innocents, and struck fear in many parents’ perceptions, schools remain the safest place for children and adolescents. Yet, as will be seen, it is inappropriate and ineffective public policy to have small or unique tragic events direct violence prevention measures, for even across these school shootings few causative connections can be found (Carter et al. 2014).

School shootings remain rare events across the country’s primary and secondary schools. Since 1992, from a school population of 49 million students, the number of children or adolescents killed by homicide on school grounds remains between 11 and 34 annually (U.S. Department of Education 2014a), with an additional one to ten students who have committed suicide on school grounds, depending on the year (U.S. Department of Education 2014b). Similarly, and in tandem with overall juvenile offender crime rates over a similar two decade time period, violent victimizations, student drug use, and student-related delinquency activities on school grounds have low prevalence rates and have been declining (Brooks et al. 2000; DeVoe et al. 2004; U.S. Department of Education 2014a). These trends are highlighted by the significantly larger risks that children and adolescents have of being victims of violent crime outside of school (Justice Policy Institute 2011).

Schools remain, for almost all children and adolescents, the safest environment. With very low rates of violent crime that occur on school grounds, and the positive impact that a nurturing and well-structured school setting provides, most students have opportunities that should allow for strong learning outcomes and social supports (Donohue et al. 1998; Robers et al. 2012). However, when positive structures and supports are lacking or when security measures and distrust increased throughout schools, many students are harmed, including poorer academic outcomes, strained social bonds with teachers and administrators, and increased risk for school failure (Sojoyner 2014; Steeves and Marx 2014).

Criminalization of Education

The increased punitive environment within the juvenile courts, perceptions of growing school violence, the crack cocaine epidemic that had a devastating impact on many poor communities, and worries about adolescent gangs were all factors that led Congress to enact the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994 (20 U.S.C. § 8921(b)). This federal legislation acted as a seal of approval to promoting zero tolerance policies in schools districts. Even though the law itself only made states’ receipt of federal funding for K-12 education contingent on imposing a 1-year expulsion for a student found in possession of a gun on school grounds and a mandatory referral to the juvenile or adult justice system (20 U.S.C. § 8921(b)(1)(e)), the march toward school security and quick discipline had begun. Within 2 years of the law’s passage, all states had enacted compliant legislation (Brady 2002).

Subsequent amendments to the Gun-Free Schools Act and state laws have broadened the focus from firearms to other types of weapons (Birkland and Lawrence 2009), as well as non-weapon possession problems—use of alcohol/drugs and tobacco, fighting, and disobedience of school rules (Hirschfield 2008). Since 1996, the percentage of schools that subsequently enacted what have come to be called zero tolerance policies has never fallen below 75 % (U.S. Department of Education 2013), with some estimates as high as 90 % (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2006; Muschert and Peguero 2010). These policies established mandatory suspensions or expulsions for an expansive range of student incidents, including violent behavior, fighting, assault, harassment, indecent exposure, vandalism, and destruction of school property, among others (Kupchik and Monahan 2006; Verdugo 2002). However, zero tolerance policies also include non-violent student behaviors, such as verbal harassment, disobedience, obscene language, and truancy (Arum 2003; Marsh 2014).

In many schools these policies are supported and reinforced through the use of security guards, metal detectors, police officers working in the building, and surveillance by cameras. Security practices are not new to school districts, but have changed over time from a focus on property crime and thefts, to a concern about individual victimizations, toward today’s broad security operations (Fuentes 2014; Lawrence 2007). During the rise of zero tolerance policies, the use of security guards, police, and cameras has significantly risen, with higher utilization rates in urban, inner-city areas (Neiman and DeVoe 2009; Ruddy et al. 2010). Today’s school security measures impact most students: nearly 6 % of all public schools utilize random use metal detectors (10 % for middle schools, 13 % for high schools), impacting 11 % of all students; mandatory walk through metal detectors are utilized in 2 % of middle schools and 4 % of high schools; 36 % of schools utilize security cameras (42 % of middle schools and 64 % of high schools), impacting 58 % of all students; and 42 % of schools employ security guards, impacting almost 65 % of all students (U.S. Department of Education 2014b). These control measures often, and in particular in low-income and inner-city public schools, create a prison-like environment (Addington 2014; Hirschfield 2010). Disparity case in point concerning school districts and student experiences: 26 % of African-American students report walking through metal detectors upon entering school compared with only 5.4 % of Caucasian students (Toldson 2011).

These prison-like environments, even when designed in security-friendly architecture and planning typically found in newer suburban schools, harm the learning environment for many students. In lower-income neighborhoods with more poorly funded schools, the impact of these security personnel and measures can be much harsher on students (Hirschfield 2010; Kupchik 2010). These environments, for any student, can produce negative reactions, fears, or worries about their school; however, in some schools students may feel resentment and negative feelings toward the surveillance and oversight itself (Addington 2009; Sipe 2012). In fact, schools with more disruptions and disorder within the buildings and classrooms utilize more security measures, but as will be an emergent theme, it may be these security measures themselves that were contributing to the disorder (Mayer and Leone 1999). These reactions to the safety measures may interfere with an effective learning environment (Bracy 2010), though additional and ongoing evaluation of these environments is necessary to determine if an improved balance between the policy objectives and student learning is possible (Addington 2014).

Establishment of the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Zero Tolerance Policies

The term “zero tolerance” was nationally recognized and used during the Reagan Administration’s war on drugs in the mid-1980s, encapsulating both a violent drug trade occurring across many U.S. cities and foreign policy affairs in drug-importing countries (Fuentes 2014). This war on drugs initiative and policy focus was imported to the public schools in 1986 with the passage of the Drug Free Schools Act, a strict prohibition against drugs or alcohol possession (20 U.S.C. § 3181(a)).

In 1989, school districts in Louisville, Kentucky, and Orange County, California, enacted zero tolerance policies calling for student expulsion for drug and gang-related activity, as well as Yonkers, New York, for school disruption. These strict response discipline and punishment ideas became popular in education policy making circles as well as the general public, and by 1993 many schools began to use the term “zero tolerance” as a philosophy that mandated the application of severe pre-determined consequences for unsafe or unacceptable student behaviors (American Psychological Association 2008). This law was followed by the previously discussed Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994 and its weapons prohibitions, setting the stage for zero tolerance policies to become the norm in school management and discipline dispensation.

These policies have eliminated the consideration by school administrators for why events occur, what motivated the students’ involvement, and any mitigating history that impacted the event and lead to the involvement of law enforcement personnel and the removal of students from schools. These removals are often for first-time offenses and lead to suspension or expulsion of students (Kang-Brown et al. 2013; Skiba 2000). While these procedural outcomes are common across many school districts, no single definition of zero tolerance exists across the country. However, there are common goals of zero tolerance policies, including maintaining a safe school climate for students and teachers that is conducive to learning, predicated on the philosophy that removing students who engage in illicit or disruptive behavior will both deter others and improve the education climate (Skiba et al. 2006). Some authors posit a common definition when defining zero tolerance policies and its impact on the school-to-prison pipeline:

Zero tolerance is a philosophy or policy that mandates the application of predetermined consequences, most often severe and punitive in nature, that are intended to be applied regardless of the apparent severity of the behavior, mitigating circumstances, or situational context. Such an approach is intended to deter future transgressions, by sending a message that no form of a given unacceptable behavior will be tolerated under any circumstances (Skiba et al. 2006, p. 26).

Unfortunately, these outcomes are far from achieved, and the policies themselves look to be part of the problem.

There is legitimate concern that the enactment of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law in 2001, juxtaposed with zero tolerance policies and unintentionally, at least in the initial rollout of the law, exacerbated the school-to-prison pipeline. The NCLB law was implemented to hold schools accountable for student performance, with concerns for students who traditionally have performed poorly—those with disabilities, certain minority groups, students living in lower socioeconomic class, and those whose first language is not English (Fuentes 2014; Nolan 2011). However, the punitive focus on those schools with low standardized proficiency scores has narrowed educational instruction—thus, teaching to the test—and encouraged the removal of low-performing students by referring to alternative schools and General Education Development (GED) programs, eliminating them from attendance roles, or using zero tolerance policies to expand arrests and expulsions (Klehr 2009; Nichols and Berliner 2007; Ryan 2004).

For those students who stay enrolled, often these types of school administration actions increase disengagement from the learning environment and alienate the connections students have to their schools—thus increasing disruptive behaviors (Kozol 2005). Once students are removed from school, it is often difficult to overcome the barriers to re-entry and successful high school completion (Advancement Project et al. 2011). One ongoing difficulty is that the NCLB Act (20 U.S.C. § 7115(b)(2)(E)), and recent state waivers to the Act lowering the original standards, failed to provide the necessary funding to address the resource disparities among the nation’s schools, but did provide funding for school-based law enforcement officers and encourages the officers’ involvement in problem or disruptive student discipline (Advancement Project et al. 2011). This funding trend has continued over the past decade with most (35) states providing fewer K-12 education dollars per pupil, problematic because states provide the majority of school district support across the country (Leachman and Mai 2014).

Zero tolerance policies and the criminalization of education have many causative factors and a disproportionate impact on certain students—one group includes minorities and those living in poorer communities. In particular, harmful outcomes of these strict policies have greater impact on inner-city and lower-income school districts (Addington 2014). Despite past efforts at school integration, re-segregation of public schools has been occurring across many districts (Orfield 2009), further separating students and neighborhoods by race and class (Fry and Taylor 2012). Students in lower-income school districts have fewer educational opportunities, are less likely to enroll in four-year colleges, and are more likely to attend schools where a vast majority of the population are students of color (Children’s Defense Fund 2012; Palardy 2009). Nationwide, the average African-American student attends a school where nearly two of every three classmates are low-income, double the comparative Caucasian student rate (Orfield et al. 2012). School districts that are disproportionately poor and minority are more likely to utilize security measures and to have police officers in their schools (Hirschfield 2010).

Police Officers (SRO’s) in the Schools

Reinforcing the shifts toward discipline, the Safe Schools Act of 1994 and 1998 Amendment, both Amendments to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, promoted and funded partnerships for in-school police forces, also known as school resource officers, in primary and secondary schools (42 U.S.C. § 3711). These Acts were initiated by the Clinton Administration’s reaction to the school shootings and killings at Westside Middle School in Arkansas, and had two policy objectives: to help build school and police force collaborations, and to improve school and student safety (Rich-Shea and Fox 2014). Before these Acts, the following was very unlikely to have occurred:

A student was asked (by a school staff member) to remove his “do-rag” upon arriving at school prior to the start of the day. He resisted at first, but then removed it (unhappily). He then cussed out the assistant principal, who wrote him a referral for doing so. Then he was sent to the office, and he wanted to leave, but Mr. Majors (another assistant principal) stood in his way and wouldn’t let him leave. The student tried to push Mr. Majors aside, and as a result he was handcuffed by the school resource office and arrested for pushing a staff member (Kupchik 2010, p. 79).

The idea of having police integrated within their communities was not new, it had been introduced in the 1950s throughout numerous districts having officers walk the neighborhoods. This crime management approach focused on maintaining community order and minimizing criminal activity from escalating into more serious forms (Gowri 2003). With the progression of policing and the enactment of the 1994 Safe School Acts and subsequent amendments, police in schools became the norm for many school districts, with nearly one billion dollars spent by federal agencies during this time period, including funding from the NCLB Act, and employing over 17,000 officers annually. By some estimates, 48 % of all schools have a school resource officer on campus, with funding for officers at the federal and state levels increasing over the past few years (Justice Policy Institute 2011; Morgan et al. 2014; Thurae and Wald 2010).

School resource officers are typically police officers from the local police district, thus they do not answer to, nor are rarely employed, by the local school district. The school resource officers’ responsibilities vary, though a majority of their day is dedicated to law enforcement activities, followed by advising, mentoring, and teaching students (Finn et al. 2005; Petteruti 2011). This arrangement does reinforce the policy objective of the Safe Schools Acts by building stronger school and police district collaborations (Rosiak 2009).

The Pipeline Does Not Improve School Safety

Millions of students nationwide are impacted annually by zero tolerance policies, and hundreds of thousands of middle and high school students are caught every year within the school-to-prison pipeline through suspensions, arrests by school resource officers, and, for some, expulsion (Advancement Project et al. 2011; Reyes 2006; Skiba 2000; U.S. Department of Education 2014a). The presence of police officers has increased student arrests on school grounds between 300 and 500 % annually since the establishment of zero tolerance policies, most of the time for non-serious offenses—unruly behaviors, disobedience, or status offenses (Advancement Project 2005; NAACP 2006; Theriot 2009; Thurae and Wald 2010). As an example, in the 2009–2010 academic year, 96,000 students were arrested while on school grounds and 242,000 were referred to the juvenile courts by school officials (McCurdy 2014). With this level of impact, are the zero tolerance policies and Safe Schools Act’s objectives of making schools and students safer being met?

Unfortunately, for vested stakeholders, but particularly for students and families caught in the school-to-prison pipeline, the answer is no. Schools are safer today than at any time over the past two decades (Robers et al. 2012; U.S. Department of Education 2014a), but not because of the impact zero tolerance policies or school resource officers have on schools. Most school discipline policies and procedures developed over the past 20 years are influenced by subjective factors, leading to inconsistent application of student codes of conduct, and, as will be reviewed later, disproportionate impact on certain groups of students (Faffaele-Mendez et al. 2002). Counter-intuitively for many policy makers, schools that have increased their suspension and expulsion rates, hoping that the removal of problem students will improve school environments, have found the opposite to be true: academic achievement has declined, school and student body cohesion has become more fragile, and satisfaction with the school and its governance structures has worsened (American Psychological Association 2008; Carter et al. 2014; Marsh 2014).

In tandem with the philosophy of many juvenile justice system detention and incarceration facilities during the 1990s, it was thought that increased school discipline and zero tolerance policies would have a deterrent effect on students and improve behaviors. However, increasing school suspensions has increased student misbehavior, and suspensions and expulsions have increased the likelihood for school dropout or delayed graduation (Costtenbader and Markson 1998; Henry 2000; Justice Policy Institute 2011). These harsh discipline policies increase education failure, isolate students socially, and restrict young adult economic options (Kupchik and Monahan 2006; Verdugo 2002). These discipline outcomes cause behavior and incident recidivism problems for disciplined students returning to school (Losen et al. 2014).

School resource officers are well thought of by many stakeholders and generally provide a feeling of safety for many inside the school leading to some increases in crime reporting by students and some school personnel and students report decreases in fighting and bullying; though this is not universally found within student populations (Finn et al. 2005; Martinez 2009). However, the impact that police officers in schools have in reinforcing zero tolerance policies and the utilization of more formal methods of discipline is a serious concern in exacerbating and reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline (Bazemore et al. 2004; Newman 2004; Rich-Shae 2010). In the majority of schools where school resource officers are employed, it is often postulated, and found by some researchers, they do more harm than good for students through increasing the criminalization of school-based, and often minor, problems (Brown 2006; Dahlberg 2012; Theriot 2009). Of concern, the harsher discipline reinforcement by the presence of school resource officers may be greater for larger urban schools and schools with more at-risk and minority students (Brady et al. 2007). The identified exception is the small number of schools where serious crime is a persistent problem (Crouch and Williams 1995; Kupchik 2010).

While the presence of school resource officers may be causing little direct harm for a majority of students and the outcomes are neutral for many, they look to be a factor in the disproportionate impact of school discipline on certain student groups (American Psychological Association 2006; Brady et al. 2007). The major policy problem is that the utilization of police officers in schools is significantly greater than the evidence of their positive impact on school safety. Thus, officers’ presence is near ubiquitous across most school districts, and their potential unintended and harmful consequences on the student population potentially understated. This under appreciation across many stakeholders is because the research evidence is not complete: too many uneven methodological standards, old data, comparison of disparate outcome definitions, and lower numbers of peer reviewed studies have been published to provide guidance in how or if to use school resource officers (Morgan et al. 2014).

Disconcertingly, school resource officers and school personnel involve students in the pipeline a vast majority of the time for minor or non-serious actions or behaviors with disobedience being the most common reason (Advancement Project 2005; The Equity Project 2014). However, even a first step into these discipline pathways can cause significant difficulties for many students. A single suspension or expulsion from school doubles the risk for a student repeating a grade, itself a strong risk factor for dropping out of high school (Kang-Brown et al. 2013; Rich-Shae and Fox 2014). Subsequently, these outcomes are serious risks for involvement in the juvenile justice system, as evidenced by a longitudinal study of six million Texas students that found a discretionary school offense that did not include a weapon made juvenile court involvement three times more likely (Fabelo et al. 2011). Once involved with the juvenile courts, adolescents are significantly more likely to remain involved and to have recidivist outcomes, including detention and, for some, incarceration (Petrosino et al. 2010).

Child and Adolescent Social Work

The rise of rigid school discipline policies and a tough on crime approach in juvenile justice was not an intentional collaboration. However, the shifts away from student school inclusion and increased use of safety measures across school districts have had harmful impacts on school climates and increased juvenile court referrals, disproportionately impacting vulnerable children and adolescents. It is important to continue assessing the evidence of these punitive school policies and move toward rehabilitative alternatives for all students. Recent evidence supports that social work professionals working inside and outside of school settings increasingly recognize and attempt to effectively intervene with decreasing out-of-school placements for these children and adolescents (Dupper 2010; Teasley and Miller 2011). However, there remains much left to uncover, investigate, and change.

There are effective ways to change the future for these children and adolescents. The pipeline can be dismantled, without decreasing school or community safety. There are evidence-based practices and policy changes to move from punitive to rehabilitative paradigms in the schools and juvenile courts (Muschert et al. 2014). In some states and jurisdictions there have been significant changes, modifications to policies, and much improved outcomes for these disenfranchised children and adolescents (Davis et al. 2014; Kim et al. 2013; U.S. Department of Education 2014b). It is the responsibility of the social work profession working within these practice and policy paradigms to become educated on these problems in their local communities, identify what needs to be changed, and lead the way across schools and juvenile courts to help turn the focus to inclusion and rehabilitation of these young people and not exclusion from their educational rights.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Social WorkCleveland State UniversityClevelandUSA

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