The school-to-prison pipeline: Time to shut it down

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by Mary Ellen Flannery, this article originally appeared on

Years ago, James Duran didn’t think too much before suspending students who came to his office with stories of swearing at teachers, disrupting class, or even arriving late to school.

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“I can tell you that I was suspending upwards of 300 kids a year. And I’ll tell you, I’ll admit it, that’s just what we did in schools. We suspended kids,” says Duran, the veteran dean of discipline at Skinner Middle School in Denver. “Looking back, it was a big cop-out. Basically it just gave kids permission not to be in school.”

Duran wasn’t the only one pushing kids out. In 2010, more than 3 million students were suspended from school, or double the level of suspensions in the 1970s. Meanwhile, more than a quarter-million were “referred” to police officers for misdemeanor tickets, very often for offenses that once would have elicited a stern talking-to.

The practice of pushing kids out of school and toward the juvenile and criminal justice systems has become known as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and in 2013, NEA members and leaders made a formal commitment to close it. Fueled by zero tolerance policies and the presence of police officers in schools, and made worse by school funding cuts that overburden counselors and high-stakes tests that stress teachers, these excessive practices have resulted in the suspensions, expulsions, and arrests of tens of millions of public school students, especially students of color and those with disabilities or who identify as LGBT.

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