School-to-prison pipeline

Mei-Ling Malone teaches Education and Criminal Justice courses at Los Angeles Southwest College. She received her masters and doctorate degree from UCLA in Urban Education.  Her dissertation, “Over-Incarcerated & Undereducated: The Impact of California’s Prison Proliferation on Los Angeles Urban Schools” examined the role of the prison industry on segregated schools.   She is a firm believer in providing education that is accessible, critical, empowering and transformative and believes in the power of the people to work for love, wellness, self-determination and self-liberation.



It’s a Friday morning and you’re feeling positive and looking forward to the weekend as you walk into your staff meeting and settle down next to your favorite coworker.  Your boss starts talking when suddenly a group of police officers storm in shouting with dogs.  A large dog startles you by jumping onto your lap sniffing.  The officers yell at everyone to stand up and leave the room at once.  Scared and frazzled you walk outside and watch the intimidating armed officers go through your personal belongings from the window.  After making a mess of the staff room and taking your favorite fragrance bottle that was stashed in your bag and a few other personal items from your co-workers, the police leave without apologizing.  The whole event feels hostile, degrading and confusing.  You also feel violated, disrespected and angry.   To add to your growing frustration, your boss pretends like nothing happened and then continues the meeting business as usual.  This of course sends you the message that you deserved the police invasion and that it was perfectly normal.

This slightly modified scenario came directly from listening to a student talk about her experiences at an urban high school in South Los Angeles.  While the situation I just described was only imaginary for you and would be considered unacceptable, unjust treatment for most, this type of experience is very real and all too common for working class black and Latino youth at school.  In fact, this same student also told me about other incidences in which she was treated like a criminal at school.  She shared of a time when she and others were pepper sprayed on campus as they walked to class and of another time when police raided her locker.  While researching the school-to-prison pipeline I heard these stories and more through my student interviews. Read more

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Catherine Kramarczuk Voulgarides is a Ph.D. candidate in the Sociology of Education program at New York University (NYU). She was a graduate assistant at the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education at NYU under the leadership of Dr. Pedro Noguera. She now works at the Technical Assistance Center on Disproportionality in Special Education at the center. Before joining the Metro center, she worked for the AmeriCorps Vista project in Phoenix, Arizona, coordinating and developing ESL programs for recent immigrant parents in the Phoenix school system. She holds a BA in economics and is a graduate of McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She also holds a MST in Special Education from Pace University in New York City and taught middle school special education for several years in Washington Heights NYC. Her research interests are centered on the intersection between the impact of federal disability legislation and the persistence of racial and ethnic disproportionality. More specifically she is interested in understanding the complexities associated with a policy’s origins, its intent and mediation in practice as it responds to local context, especially when a disparate impact is identified.

It was a typical school day in my research and I was observing an in school suspension room when an African American boy, about seventeen years old, entered and immediately sat at a desk and began writing. The teacher in the room appeared to know him well and asked him what he was working on. The boy said he was writing about what he would say if he became valedictorian. The teacher, seemingly intrigued, asked him to explain his thoughts. “I want to go to college. I mean I only have three options: college, jail or the army.  It’s true, you can ask anyone. These are our only options. You would be surprised by how many kids would say the same. This school is nasty like that.” 

Upon closer inspection of the student’s assignment the teacher realized he was working on an essay for the online credit recovery program designed for suspended students. With the realization the teacher said, “You better get that work done because people are calling the online program a criminal program!” The boy quickly responded with, “I’m not a criminal.” The teacher continued, “Well, people think the program is harboring criminals.” “I ain’t no criminal!” the boy interrupted.  He then returned to his assignment visibly distraught.

Why did he only see three options for himself and his peers: college, jail or the army? And why was he defending himself against the perception that he was a potential criminal? More broadly, what messages are we intentionally or unintentionally telling students about their worth in school and how do these messages intersect with school discipline structures? Read more

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