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Generation Voice: Investigating the 'school-to-prison pipeline'

Tom Byrne
Delaware Public Medcia

The phrase school-to-prison pipeline is used to explain a growing phenomenon in schools across America. Studies have shown that the more times a student faces in-school and out-of-school suspensions, the more likely they are to drop out of school, become incarcerated and get involved in violent crime – hence the name school-to-prison pipeline.


Students of color who get in trouble during school for something as minor as being unprepared for or late to class or violating dress code rules are much more likely to be suspended than their white peers. In 2013, close to 14,000 out-of-school suspensions were given to students in Delaware schools. And while black students made up only 32% of the student body that year, they accounted for 67% of these suspensions.

My name is Amaya Williams, and I’m a student at Mount Pleasant High School. As a student of color myself, I wanted to talk to some of my peers – and some experts – to figure out why this is happening and what’s being done to address it.


The school-to-prison pipeline has affected some of my classmates at Mount who’ve had unfortunate encounters with school authority. When a student is put on a path to a jailhouse while still in school, this is referred to as the school to prison pipeline.  I spoke to one of my classmates David – a sophomore at Mount Pleasant – about his experiences with school discipline. He shared with me what administration told him on his first day at Mount Pleasant.

“When I first came to Mount, they reminded me that like we’re in highschool now…and according to my previous record if I get into another fight, I’m either gonna go to juvie or jail,” David said.

In elementary school, David got into a fight with another student who happened to be white. The other student started the fight, but David was the one who was suspended.

“I had to spend like two days at home while he was at school,” he said.

David missed out on valuable school time and had trouble catching up.

“I think it damaged my reputation because…a lot of teachers tell me I’m a smart kid, and because I got suspended a lot in elementary school I had to redo a lot of classes,” David said. “I never got held back, but I was always behind in my work, so I think…it kind of made me rush instead of learning the material.”  

While David has been out of danger since then, other students haven’t been so lucky.

One former Delaware student is facing a lifetime jail sentence. He first got in trouble for carving his name in the back of a school bus seat.

“It all started in the 5th grade. It was what they termed a dangerous weapon,” David said. “He was expelled and his life just kind of careened out of control after that.”

That’s Shannon Griffin, a community organizer with Delaware’s ACLU chapter. Griffin is currently working with the mother of that student.

  A root cause of this problem is what’s known as the  “zero tolerance policy,” during which a student is severely penalized for juvenile disciplinary problems.

Griffin says the zero tolerance policy isn’t new.

“The shooting in Columbine was really kind of the impetus for a lot of schools going to zero tolerance,” Griffin said. “And I think it’s a huge negative impact. When we talk about involving students in the criminal justice system, more often than not, no matter their background, they’re introduced to it at school.”

This policy has been in play for about 15 years.

“The zero tolerance policy has created a breeding ground for children to ultimately end up in the prison system,” Griffin said.

That’s former Wilmington city councilwoman Sherry Dorsey-Walker.

She and Griffin agree that policy often translates to a schoolwide mentality. Griffin says schools have a tendency to influence negative behavior, instead of enforcing the positive.

“It’s like parents don’t even want to answer the phone because they only hear from schools when their child is a problem,” she said.

Griffin said the mother of the student mentioned earlier who was in possession of the carving knife pleaded for school officials to provide help for her son.

“The mother, who I know really well, was crying out for help,” Griffin said. “She’s saying, ‘Listen, he needs some more resources, he needs some more services.’”

She added there is a serious problem with the lack of early interventions in schools. Many students only qualify to receive mental health counseling after multiple serious offenses. The incident with the carving knife also wasn’t considered a serious offense.

“They were like, you know, what he did wasn’t bad enough to kick in additional services that could possibly benefit him,” Griffin said.

However, Dorsey-Walker says that there is no one method for discipline. Each child is different and requires a unique approach.

David agreed with both Griffin and Walker that alternate methods would do the least amount of harm to a student. David shared an alternate form of discipline that his school put in place for students like him.

“Due to my attitude, I was enrolled in a special group that would leave the class every once in awhile a few times a week,” David said. “Attitude adjust-basically attitude adjustment.”

Dorsey-Walker added many school administrators and state officials don’t understand the impact of district-level discipline policies.


"You'll never understand the circumstances of some of our children until you've taken the time to just be in their shoes," she said.

Still, David has significantly improved since that fight. He says that by middle school things started getting slowly better. Although he wasn’t perfect, his act started to straighten out. He even began to make peace with his former enemies by the time he reached middle school.


Coming to Mount Pleasant High was a real eye opener for him.

“Well yeah, as soon as I came to Mount, my act straightened out. I kind of took the high road. Instead of fighting with my fists, I fight with my mouth,” David said. “I’m kind of a smart alec. I have a higher vocabulary now so that’s even better, because once you say something they don’t understand it puts them in check.”

He went from being a child threatened with being thrown into juvenile hall to a very accomplished student with a reputation for his intelligence, and kind, loving nature.

“The me right now, I don’t like to have enemies or anything,” he said. “I know a lot of kids right now that I used to fight a lot, and we’re like the best of friends. I got one kid who I used to fight a lot, we’re partners in cooking class. It’s just like…the new David is more peaceful than the other David.”

Shannon Griffin said it best.

“Well first off we have to see each other as human beings. I mean it’s just that simple right?”


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