The School-to-Prison Pipeline in Pittsburgh

People holding banner reading “Pushing Back Against School Push Out”

Pittsburgh area schools have a prison problem. No, not because school may feel like a prison, as many a teenage student may espouse. Rather, Pittsburgh area schools are paving a path for its students to enter into the justice system, and never come out. This is not a new development or a Pittsburgh-specific problem. This phenomenon is referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline” and it has been taking place over decades, all over the country. The school-to-prison pipeline is the process by which increasing students’ disciplinary experiences in school leads to a students’ greater likelihood of interaction with the juvenile justice system. The issue has been exacerbated by decades of zero-tolerance student conduct policies and increased police presence in schools. It also disproportionately affects Black, Latino, LGBTQ, and students with disabilities and places them at a disadvantage among their peers. Due to the many facets of the pipeline, a solution has not been easily attainable. Widespread reforms across the Pittsburgh schools and their funding sources must take place in order to reverse the problem and institute sustainable change. In addition, the pervasive racial inequities need to be addressed as a root cause of the issue. However, there are some promising initiatives, such as restorative discipline practices, that may be able to counteract the pipeline’s effects.

The link between exclusionary discipline practices such as suspensions and expulsions and negative outcomes for students, like higher drop-out and incarceration rates, is an unequivocal fact . Yet, schools in Pittsburgh and across the nation continue to utilize these practices in spite of the overwhelming evidence that not only do suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to law enforcement negatively impact the students, but there is no evidence that exclusionary practices positively impact the school or student body. The “War on Drugs” approach to school discipline has schools treating minor offenses as serious crimes and exposing large swaths of students to the justice system from a young age . The tangential costs of resulting high school dropouts and incarcerated individuals on the local, state, and federal tax revenue and social support systems are highly significant.

The most startling effects of the school-to-prison pipeline are on minority populations, specifically black students. In Allegheny County, black students are subject to “suspension rates that are 7.3 times higher than the rate of non-black suspensions” with Black students making up 68% of all suspensions in the county . This is despite the fact that research has shown that neither group’s offenses are more serious or more frequent than the other. Rather, school rules are being selectively enforced on racial minority students who in Pittsburgh and across the country are disproportionately carrying the burden of a stringent discipline system due to racial bias.

Addressing the school-to-prison pipeline in the Pittsburgh school system is not a simple, effortless task. There are many issues that intermesh to create the consequence of the pipeline including racial bias, exclusionary discipline policies, increased police presence in schools, and inadequate funding for wrap-around supports for students. Some steps have been taken in recent years to address these problems in the schools. Several Allegheny County districts have begun to revise their codes to reflect the need for better approaches to non-violent-, non-drug-related student behavioral problems. In addition, clinics such as the Juvenile Defender Clinic and the Education Law Clinic at Duquesne University have launched to represent young people in discipline and law enforcement matters. Pittsburgh Public Schools has also instituted restorative practices in 22 schools across the district that are designed to aid students in understanding the impact of their behaviors and identify avenues to restore their place in the school community. Indeed, restorative practice approaches have proven to be an effective component of discipline systems in schools and beyond. However, in order for restorative practice to cultivate an effective behavioral atmosphere it must be more than just tacked on to a school’s policy as a model that is “encouraged.” Rather, restorative practice requires school and community buy-in, with sustained, concerted effort at changing the climate of the school. This is not easily – or cheaply – done.

However, it is possible and has proven successful. In a study analyzing the implementation of restorative practices, classrooms with a high level of implementation showed fewer disciplinary referrals for defiance and misconduct in comparison to classrooms with low implementation of restorative practices . Additionally, the referral gap between White/Asian students and African-American/Latino students was significantly narrower in classrooms with a high level of restorative practice implementation. This study is an encouraging signifier of the positive outcomes a restorative practice approach can have on the student behavioral climate. If Pittsburgh Public Schools commits the attention and funds necessary for a high level of implementation of restorative practice, it may also experience these beneficial outcomes.

Hello! My name is Kara Hoffman and I am a graduate intern at Three Rivers Community Foundation. I am currently studying at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Social Work with a Community, Organization, and Social Action (COSA) concentration. I have a passion for serving victims of discrimination, oppression, and injustice in any form. I am also a Pittsburgh native and a proud lover of bridges, pierogi, and Steelers football. I enjoy engaging with the progressive social change community!

Contact me: