The school-to-prison pipeline

By Sarah Biehl

Every year, Ohio schools issue more than 200,000 out-of-school suspensions to Ohio children.1 More than half of those suspensions are for “disobedient or disruptive behavior,” not for violence, drugs, alcohol or possession of weapons. The harmful effects of removing children from school rather than employing more effective disciplinary interventions are profound. Multiple ongoing legislation efforts in Ohio could help to end such policies—or serve to expand them.

Understanding the school-to-prison phenomenon

Removing children from school has not been proven to work. It does not, for example, improve the academic performance of the children who remain in the classroom once the “problem child” leaves. Instead it leads to a disproportionate number of at-risk Ohio children dropping out of school and is a primary contributor to the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The school-to-prison pipeline is a phenomenon describing the effects of certain school policies and practices that push children out of school and increase their likelihood of entering the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Such policies and practices may include zero tolerance; discipline policies such as suspension and expulsion; prison-like security procedures, over-reliance on police officers in schools to discipline students; and an increasing number of school-based arrests and referrals to juvenile court for status offenses like truancy. According to state data from the Ohio Department of Education and national data from the UCLA Civil Rights Project and the Advancement Project, the school-to-prison pipeline has been shown to disproportionately impact students of color, students with disabilities and low-income students.

Why are out-of-school suspensions and expulsions so harmful to Ohio children?

Out-of-school suspensions (removals from school for 10 days or less) and expulsions (removals from school for 11 to 80 days) are major factors contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline because they occur frequently and are damaging to children’s academic success and future prospects. Extensive data from the Ohio Department of Education details the frequency and disproportionate impact on African-American children, children with disabilities and low-income children in Ohio. Out-of-school suspensions do not make sense as a disciplinary tactic for addressing nonviolent behavior problems. They create disproportionalities that make it even harder for many at-risk students to break the cycle of poverty and become successful adults who contribute positively to Ohio’s communities.

Out-of-school suspensions are common in Ohio and used primarily to address nonviolent and noncriminal behavior. According to data from the Ohio Department of Education, Ohio schools issued more than 210,000 out-of-school suspensions during the 2012-13 academic year, and 54 percent of those suspensions were for “disobedient or disruptive” behavior rather than for violent or criminal behavior. These punishments are not applied fairly to all students. Black students are approximately five times more likely to be suspended for the same behavior as white students. Students with disabilities are two to eight times more likely to be suspended, depending on the category of disability, than students without disabilities. Low-income students are about two and a half times more likely to be suspended than students who are not low-income.2

Zero tolerance policies that require schools to use harsh exclusionary discipline for a range of specific behaviors have contributed to the high number of suspensions and expulsions in Ohio schools. The consequences of zero tolerance and arrest policies have been highlighted in the national media in recent years, with examples includ-ing a six-year-old Cub Scout in Delaware suspended for bringing a camping utensil with a knife, fork and spoon to school and a 12-year-old in Brooklyn arrested and hauled out of school in handcuffs for doodling on her desk. In Ohio, a six-year-old girl was proposed for expulsion from school for 80 days because she brought her mother’s nail clippers to school. A second-grader was proposed for expulsion for 80 days for refusing to do his work and walking out of the classroom. And a middle-school child was suspended—then arrested—for wearing a shirt to school that exposed her midriff.

The impact of these suspensions and expulsions on Ohio communities is striking. A history of prior suspensions from school is the number one factor that leads to children dropping out of school.3 Children with disabilities and others who are behind in class have a hard time catching up after returning from suspensions and expulsions, often leading to more bad behavior and further exclusions from school. Many parents cannot adequately supervise their children while they are out of school due to work obligations, leaving children unsupervised and more likely to become the victims and perpetrators of crime in their neighborhoods. Children who do not finish high school are highly likely to end up incarcerated in our juvenile or criminal justice systems: They are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested, and approximately 82 percent of the adult prison population is composed of high school dropouts.4

Moreover, national data shows that schools that suspend and expel at higher rates have lower academic achievement rates.5 There also is no correlation between higher rates of suspension, expulsion or the presence of police officers inside schools and increased school safety for students or school staff.6

What does Ohio law require and what changes are on the horizon?

Ohio has a statewide statute, R.C. 3313.534, making it mandatory for school districts to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy for “violent, disruptive or inappropriate behavior, including excessive truancy.” There is little doubt that zero tolerance policies have exacerbated the school-to-prison pipeline by focusing school discipline on out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, even for relatively minor misbehavior, rather than on other forms of discipline that keep children in the classroom when appropriate.7 Currently, the Ohio Senate is considering a bill that would replace the zero tolerance mandate in R.C. 3313.534 with a directive to school districts to “adopt a policy that allows for many factors to be considered prior to the suspension or expulsion of a student” and establishes “alternative strategies, including prevention, intervention, restorative justice, peer mediation, and counseling.”8 Through this legislation, school districts across Ohio would benefit from discussion about what policies will best support schools in finding better, less harmful ways to discipline students and keep classrooms safe.

Ohio’s suspension and expulsion statute, R.C. 3313.66, sets out the procedures schools must follow to suspend or expel students and the due process rights of parents and students during those proceedings. Currently, the Ohio Legislature is considering two bills, House Bill 334 and Senate Bill 239, that would significantly expand schools’ ability to expel children from school for longer periods, extending the current maximum expulsion period from 80 days to 180 days, and giving school administrators more leeway to impose expulsions for less serious behavior.9 The bill has already garnered impassioned
testimony during legislative hearings, and may serve as a springboard for further discussion of the issue of discipline by removal from school during the spring 2014 legislative session.

Parents, lawyers and community members must get involved

Parents generally do not think about their schools’ discipline policies until their child is subject to disciplinary proceedings. There is no quantitative data on how often parents bring lawyers with them to suspension or expulsion hearings at their children’s schools, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it happens very infrequently. Anecdotal evidence and data collected by the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago on the impact of having an attorney in school discipline cases in Cook County also suggest that when parents do employ lawyers to help them fight suspensions and expulsions, children avoid expulsion most of the time.10 Thus, lawyers can have a huge impact in individual cases. At a minimum, parents should learn about their procedural rights in school discipline and special education cases and support their children accordingly.
On a broader scale, while the state legislature can pass legislation changing state-level requirements for school policies, the most effective and efficient avenue to change is at the local level. Parents, students, educators and community members can advocate for policies and practices in schools that build positive school climates and reduce the emphasis on suspension and expulsion in favor of positive, preventive approaches to discipline like positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) and restorative practices. Community members can help develop mental health responder programs in schools, which identify young people with mental health needs early and ensure that they access appropriate treatment and services. You do not need to be a school board member or school administrator to ask questions, make suggestions, and act to ensure that your community’s schools adopt an individualized, compassionate and common sense approach to discipline and security that ensures that all children remain in school and out of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Ohio children are relying on their parents, the legal community, policymakers, educators and school administrators to make good choices for their future. No one disputes that children need strong guidance and consistent discipline to learn and to grow into successful adults, but school suspension is not a logical means of achieving the best outcomes for Ohio’s most vulnerable young people. This issue demands careful thought and action from Ohio’s legal community and beyond.

Author bio

Sarah Biehl is policy director at Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio, where she is leading CDF-Ohio’s work to end overly harsh school discipline practices, fight for juvenile justice reform, improve educational outcomes for Ohio children, and address child health access issues.


1 Ohio Department of Education, iLRC Power Reports.
2 Ohio Department of Education, iLRC Power Reports.
3 Suhyun Suh, Jingyo Suh, & Irene Houston, “Predictors of Categorical At-Risk High School Dropouts,” 85 Journal of Counseling and Development 196, 196-203 (Spring 2007).
4 Coalition for Juvenile Justice, Abandoned in the Back Row: New Lessons in Education and Delinquency Prevention (2001).
5 Russell Skiba and Jeffrey Sprague, “Safety Without Suspensions,” Educational Leadership, Sept. 2008.
6 Dan Losen & Tia Elena Martinez, Out of School and Off Track: The Overuse of Suspensions in American Middle and High Schools, (April 2013); Advancement Project, Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track, (March 2005).
7 American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools?: An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations, (Dec. 2008).
10 Illinois Legal Aid Online, School Discipline for DCFS Wards Not in Special Educa¬tion Programs,



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