Jamal, an African American student, was removed from his school’s special education program even though his disability caused him to struggle academically. This led to behavioral problems, and punitive responses to his emotional and academic issues escalated until he was ultimately arrested at school. Unfortunately, Jamal’s story is not unusual; it describes a larger trend in which students, particularly Black and Latino students, are introduced into the criminal justice system by discipline practices in their schools that lead to arrests or exclusion through suspension or expulsion. This trend is commonly referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline, and it is often cited as one of the primary reasons that the American criminal justice system serves so many Black and Latino defendants.
According to a study by the Kirwan Institute, “In 2010, a third of all black male high school dropouts between the ages of 20 and 39 were imprisoned.”
Implicit biases—unconscious associations between groups of people and stereotypical ideas—affect the routine classroom and administrative decisions that perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline at the classroom and institutional levels. Research from Harvard University’s Project Implicit indicates that about sixty-eight percent of Americans have an implicit preference for whites over African Americans; therefore, it is imperative for school personnel to recognize the role that bias plays in the educational context. In addition to impacting student achievement and teacher expectations, implicit racial bias may also affect both which students are referred for formal discipline proceedings and how severely those students are disciplined.
This evidence that implicit racial bias contributes to the documented lower academic achievement, higher discipline rates, and lower graduation rates of minority students in comparison to their white peers suggests that implicit racial bias leads to a systemic failure of American schools to adequately serve minority students. This failure to appropriately educate minority students has dramatic implications on several life outcomes including involvement in the criminal justice system. In fact, research from the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity indicates that, “a third of all black male high school dropouts between the ages of 20 and 39 were imprisoned” in 2010.
Implicit Racial Bias and the School-to-Prison Pipeline
- Implicit Racial Bias impacts teachers’ expectations for their students. Recent research indicates that teachers tend to hold lower achievement expectations for African American and Latino students than their white peers. This difference in expectations could cause teachers to grade Black and Latino students more harshly, to invest less time tutoring students of color, to recommend them for gifted programs less frequently, and to refer them for special education programs more frequently.
- Fear of implicit racial bias affects the academic performance of Black and Latino students. When Black or Latino students fear that their performance on a test or other assessment will confirm a negative stereotype about their racial groups, stereotype threat causes them to earn lower grades than they otherwise would have. Additionally, research by social psychologists Cohen and Steele indicates that minority students do worse academically if they believe that bad grades and negative feedback are the result of a teacher’s bias against them.
- Implicit racial bias influences the way that school administrators perceive student behavior. Because of implicit biases linking African Americans and Latinos with aggression, students from these racial groups are more likely to be perceived as “defiant” or “disrespectful” than white students. This idea explains why Black and Latino students are more likely to be referred to the office for punishment under subjective school policies than whites.
- Implicit Racial Bias affects how severely school administrators punish students for misbehavior. Social psychologists Eberhardt and Okonofua found that school administrators feel more troubled by the misbehavior of students of color and are more likely to perceive an isolated incidents as a part of a larger pattern of misconduct when the actor is Black or Latino. Okonofua and Eberhardt hypothesize that this “Black-escalation effect” exists because the implicit racial bias linking African Americans and Latinos with aggression primes school administrators to believe that students of color are more prone to misbehavior, making them more likely to connect these students’ prior instances of misconduct into a larger, more troubling pattern of infractions that requires harsher punishment.
The implicit racial bias linking Blacks and Latinos with unintelligence can cause teachers to lower their expectations for the students of color in their classrooms or to put less effort into helping them reach their academic goals. These negative academic experiences can shape the way that students of color understand their experience in school and their potential as students, causing them to achieve at lower levels than their white counterparts and pushing them into the school-to-prison pipeline. Additionally, the implicit bias linking African Americans and Latinos with aggression and criminality can lead school administrators to administer harsher punishments to students of color. These exceptionally harsh punishments can escalate until these students are arrested and literally swept from school to prison, like Jamal.
Can We End the School to Prison Pipeline?
Jamal floundered for years in a school in which his teachers and administrators responded punitively to his academic and behavioral difficulties, even though a different response might have followed if he had been a different race. Jamal lost interest in school, a racially hostile environment, until he transferred to a new school more willing to work with him to address his mental and emotional challenges. What strategies can school districts implement in an effort to end the school-to-prison pipeline?
- Abandon zero tolerance policies. Data from the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity suggests that zero tolerance policies mandating expulsion or suspension in certain situations affect racial minority students at “alarmingly disproportionate rates” and have not been successful at deterring misbehavior or improving school safety.
- Implement programs in restorative justice or Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Restorative justice and PBIS strategies encourage school administrators to rethink punitive responses to student misbehavior and instead to allow students to accept the consequences of their behavior. These approaches to behavioral intervention to allow students to perform some type of restitution within the learning environment instead of removing them through exclusionary punishments such as suspension and expulsion.
- Provide training on implicit racial bias to school personnel such as teachers, administrators, and campus police. School personnel should be encouraged to become more aware of their biases by taking the Implicit Association Test (IAT) for race, then informed about the numerous ways that their biases might shape the way that they understand and respond to their students’ needs and potentials.
- Collect data on discipline referrals. This data could be connected with data on academic achievement in order to monitor the effects of exclusionary discipline on student achievement. This information could also be a useful way to identify subjective offenses that disproportionally result in the punishment of minority students such as “willful defiance.”
These policy reforms are important components of a comprehensive strategy to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline and promote greater educational opportunity for all students, regardless of race.