A Critical Review of the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Alyssa V. Soto-Garcia


Alyssa V. Soto-Garcia

Florida International University

By definition, the school-to-prison pipeline refers to the connection between the practices

in the education system that are likely to increase the contact youths have with the juvenile justice system. The PPLM internship, accompanied by the required readings, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, Democracy and Education by John Dewey, Teaching to Transgress by Bell Hooks, and the web articles “Just Learning: The Imperative to Transform the Juvenile Justice System,” and “Introduction to Freedom School Curriculum”, increase familiarity with the juvenile justice system and the historical, economic, political, cultural, and social aspects of American society and culture that influence the school-to-prison pipeline.

The purpose of this internship is to become familiar with the juvenile justice system,

especially with respect to the hardships and circumstances which in some cases lead to the justice system as well as the effects of the current educational conditions that lead to recidivating. The readings required for this program provide a clear understanding of the faults within the education system. The internship provides an outside standpoint from which the knowledge gained from these works of literature can be observed in practice, and true understanding can be achieved. It is clear that improved conditions within the education system and juvenile justice system could prevent juveniles from falling into the hands of the legal system in the first place and prevent them from recidivating. Through this program, it is hoped that an opportunity will become available to learn how to increase public awareness and support for the changes that need to be made within these systems.



The transmission of ideas and knowledge has always been necessary for the continuation and the progress of a people. In Democracy and Education, John Dewey explains the simple, or non-complex, knowledge of survival in primitive tribes and how they are passed down from elder to youth for the purpose of educating the latter in the ways of the older generations (Dewey, 2012). This type of communication leads to a continued flow of the community. Dewey states that the youths must be led and taught by their elders for many years, because on their own they are incapable of handling even the most menial tasks (Dewey, 2012). Should such a tribal community have been afflicted with a pathogen that wiped out all older generations, who never properly educated their youth, the future generations would be set back to savage ways. It is important to thoroughly pass on, or transmit, knowledge from one generation to the next, lest the youth grow into a community incapable of progressing beyond the limits of their forefathers. Dewey eloquently explains this necessity when he says, “Unless pains are taken to see that genuine and thorough transmission takes place, the most civilized group will relapse into barbarism and then into savagery” (Dewey, 2012).

How much more important are these principles now than they were in the past? Dewey states that the gap between a simple system, such as the one discussed with the elders, and a system in which formal education is needed, such as in modern times, grows wider with every advancement in technology and society (Dewey, 2012). Proper education must be provided for all youths, and it must be concurrent with the existing society lest the youths find themselves improperly prepared to face the fast-changing world around them or find they are unable to move forward. Displacement from society leads to disengagement from society, which then leads to deviant behavior.


To have an establishment capable of fully educating all youths academically, culturally, socially, technologically, etc., it is imperative that that the establishment be properly funded. The public school system is, however, very poorly funded. Many schools function using old equipment, old technology, and books missing vital information gathered from recent research. This is truer for some schools than it is for others, namely those schools in neighborhoods of people with lower socioeconomic backgrounds. The lack of funding also does not help the physical maintenance of the schools, which is almost as important as the updating of the schools’ educational materials. According to the Broken Windows Theory, learned in my studies as a criminal justice student, the level of disorder and vandalism in an area is directly correlated with the likelihood that further deviant or criminal acts will take place in that area. Public schools, as they are now, and especially those in poorer neighborhoods, are not properly kept. If a school is as run-down as its surrounding neighborhood(s), the community where the school belongs is not likely to value the establishment or the education it provides. These juveniles are likely to see the school as a waste of time and as a pointless institution where youths are forced to use up their

time with subjects that will not matter to the greater structures of their current lives or of that of their futures. As such, the students graduating from, being expelled from, or dropping out of these schools will continue to perpetuate the conditions of their environment rather than become more than their community alone would have led them to be. On this note, schools, especially schools in low socioeconomic communities, should be made up of teachers and people willing to teach and engage their students in higher-order thinking (Hooks, 1994). Teachers from different areas, proven capable of inspiring students to achieve as much as possible, should be placed in schools that especially need their students to move forward. However, quality teachers are not likely to desire the working conditions of a school, and are not likely to want to work in a school, that is not up-to-date and capable of keeping them and their belongings safe if need be. A quality education provided in a properly maintained and equipped establishment are factors that prevent a student from taking part in deviant or criminal behavior because they value their education. The film “Waiting for Superman” that I watched for one of my courses, discussed many of the issues within the American education system, specifically the inconsistent levels of quality of education within schools around the United States. The film covers in detail that charter schools and private schools, both funded by sources other than the government, have higher student success rates, lower dropout rates, and overall a higher quality of education than even the best public school. The creators of the film attribute part of this difference in educational quality to the lack of funding in public schools. It is in the government’s best interest to increase the flow of funding to schools if they want the educational output of all students to increase while also decreasing the rate of crime associated with deviant youths.

It is notable that schools, especially in poorer neighborhoods, have a certain percentage of their students that are sent to disciplinary alternative schools as a result of aggressive, deviant, or criminal behavior. These schools are often privately funded, and are not held to the same academic standards as regular public schools. Youths taken to these schools can be there anywhere between 30 and 90 days, or one to three months. That is to say, for one to three months, troubled/deviants youths are held within a “school” without receiving a proper education. These youths then return to their normal schools, further behind in their education than they were before they were sent to the alternative schools. It is known that students who feel that doing well in school is a hopeless cause disengage from their education and later on drop out, are expelled, or become involved in criminal activity. Instead of wasting money and effort with the current state of disciplinary alternative schools, the money should be spent on the prevention of youth recidivism. According to the Just Learning: The Imperative to Transform the Juvenile Justice System web article, “juvenile justice programs that help prevent young people from becoming re-offenders could save society about $3.9 million per youth” (SEF, 2014). This money could be better spent on cognitive behavior therapy programs in public schools, especially in disciplinary alternative schools. Additionally, the Just Learning article states that when these programs were used in Chicago, there was a 44 percent decrease in violent crime arrests among therapy participants were recorded and an increase in academic performance was observed (SEF, 2014). Cognitive behavior therapy programs should be made paid for by the government and made a mandatory part of schools. If problematic students were sent to disciplinary alternative schools held to a higher educational standard, and included trained professionals for cognitive behavior therapy, juvenile recidivism would decrease ultimately saving the government money that they would have spent in processing these children in the juvenile justice system.


From a political standpoint, not much progress has been made in recent years to combat the effects of poor education on the school-to-prison pipeline. Put simply, more effective education reduces the number of youths who are taken into or return to the juvenile justice system (SEF, 2014). In some cases, decisions made by elected officials have greatly weakened the support for improved education. For example, in the case of the Florida lottery, a percentage of the money gained was allocated toward improving the education system and was intended to be added to what the government was already spending on the education system. Instead, elected officials decided to subtract from what they were spending on education the amount of money being provided by the Florida lottery. In this way, the public education system continued to receive exactly the same dollar amount it did before the lottery became involved, which was and still is, not enough to cover the realistic needs of public schools.

It is reasonable to assume that if money is being retracted from the education system it should be allocated elsewhere to help improve the community, but it is known that few, if any, public works projects occur in certain areas. Based on the Broken Window Theory, it is likely that if an area known for being run-down is cleaned and made to look as nice as many other neighborhoods, people are less likely to feel hopeless and more likely to value their community, making them less likely to commit a crime in that area. Elected officials are, however, not prone to assigning public works projects to low socioeconomic level neighborhoods, so the neighborhoods are left to fall apart, and the community’s youths are left to sink into deviant behavior and criminal activity, which they grow up seeing in such areas.

Politicians indirectly supported the rise of intolerance and criminal activity among youths by allowing zero tolerance policies to be put in place in various public schools. Zero-tolerance schools are schools in which any kind of inappropriate, deviant, or criminal behavior is immediately handed over to legal authorities, without question, who are oftentimes completely untrained to deal with adolescents. Behavior deemed unacceptable is not tolerated, and the reasons behind certain acts are considered irrelevant. These youths often end up going to a disciplinary alternative school. These schools are known for having higher levels of students entering or returning to the juvenile justice system, in part because they feel that they live in a society where it is nearly impossible not to be handled by the criminal justice system. These kinds of schools have government support because, in theory, a strong police presence and a lack of forgiveness within the school system should intimidate deviant youths into correct behavior.

However, it is clear that having schools such as these force youths into the juvenile justice system at an early and unnecessary age.

The article, Introduction to Freedom School Curriculum, touches upon voter involvement in what ideas, concepts, and teaching methods are incorporated into the education system. Oftentimes, legislation is passed that is wildly controversial regarding what can and cannot be taught in schools, and in what ways they are taught (Emery, Braselmann, & Gold, 2010). For improved education, which leads to greater engagement in education and to decreased youth incarceration and recidivism, changes to the education system should be put up for acceptance by voters, by a panel of educators, and by a panel of child psychologists capable of gauging how such changes would affect students overall.

The significance of quality education on the minds of the youth, especially where future success or criminal activity are concerned, should be considered with greater importance by all elected officials, who were voted into office to protect the interests of the common people and, most specifically, the interests of the young individuals whose entire lives will be affected by decisions made in the present.


As a people, Americans focus greatly on being on-par with the leading countries around the world in all ways. With regards to education, the United States is by no means the country with the best educational system. This is in large part due to the American desire to outperform other countries. In the last decade especially, corners have been cut from education that prevent students from graduating from public school with a full education. The efforts taken to increase the overall knowledge of individuals by increasing workload, both in school and out of school, by reducing the opportunity for students to think for themselves in order to memorize specific assigned information, and cutting out the arts from a student’s weekly schedule stunt education. Youths must be taught how to think for themselves and express themselves at an early age; not taught what to think and when to think it (Emery, Braselmann, & Gold, 2010). Being taught how to think for oneself and how to express oneself constructively through the arts and through a curriculum which encourages open discussion ultimately leads to the opening of the young mind. The consistent problem in public schools is that teachers are made to uphold the standards of state-government issued standardized exams meant to ensure that the education received by students is of a high quality, but in reality limits what can be taught and how it can be taught in the classroom. The film, “Waiting for Superman”, touches upon the undeniable fact that private schools and charter schools are not made to issue standardized exams by the government, and have a much higher student success rate than do public schools. Individuals who are taught to think beyond the boundaries of what they see and what they know are much more likely to aspire to more than individuals who are taught what to think. The youths with aspirations are more open to continuing their education, value their education more, and are not as inclined to engage in criminal activity.

Chances are that the students within poorer schools come from minority backgrounds, which are considered oppressed within American culture. According to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, people from oppressed backgrounds must do their utmost to remove themselves and their people from a position of oppression, as it is not within the oppressors’ power to do it themselves (Freire, 2000). Younger generations should be provided with the education to bring about their own self-awareness, their own evaluation of the problem at hand, and their own strength to face and change the oppressing conditions of their cultures. Yet, people from oppressed backgrounds are often raised in conditions which teach them to perpetuate the stereotypes and the oppressed behaviors of their forefathers. People raised in these neighborhoods must be taught to strive to get out of the conditions that keep them low on the socioeconomic ladder, that keep them within the circle of criminal activity and deviant behavior that mars these neighborhoods.



“Society not only continues to exist by transmission, by communication, but it may fairly be said to exist in transmission, in communication” (Dewey, 2012). In other words, society as a whole can only continue in the path that it is heading, and can only improve, if there is an efficient flow of knowledge, awareness, and ideas passed down from older generations to newer generations. Perhaps this explains the increase in deviant and criminal activity leading to juvenile incarceration. Formal education is a means by which generations of knowledge and ideas are passed on to younger generations, so that the youth can grow into an entity capable of improving the foundations set by their forefathers. The only way to prevent youths from disengaging from society and ultimately ending up part of the juvenile justice system is to educate them and give

them the means by which they can become part of the growth of their society.
The youth must be empowered by their educators to become the best that they can be and ultimately further the growth of their communities (Hooks, 1994). Currently, American public schools wear a mask of youth empowerment that hides the crushing weight of impending adulthood placed on youths. Youths are not truly encouraged to learn; they are threatened with complete failure in life if they do not memorize all that is dictated to them and learn in exactly the ways that they are taught in their schools. Placing adult-like expectations on youths while forcing them to comply with the closed-minded teachings centered on government-issued standardized exams inhibits individual growth and crushes the individual’s desire to further their education and meet their goals. In this way, growth of society is hindered. Youths that are not truly educated disengage from their schools, disengage from their communities, and sink into criminal activity because it is seen as the only source of furthering their lives, or the only way in which they can survive in a world they do not feel they belong in.

If a society intends to turn possible juvenile criminals away from their intended paths, efforts must be made to change their way of thinking. Cognitive behavior therapy was discussed as a major source of change within the juvenile justice system, but a problem persists within American culture that prevents therapies like this from taking root: mental health care is not supported by society. There is a stigma against receiving mental, emotional, or behavioral health help that prevents people who need the help from becoming fully functional members of society. These people are more likely to turn toward or return to criminal activity unless they receive help.

Public awareness of the social issues affecting the school-to-prison pipeline must be raised to make a difference. Currently, people turn a blind eye toward the problems with the education system and the stigma against mental health care because these issues have always been dealt with a certain way. To further the progress of American society, change must take place. People must work to support the necessary changes, and bring these changes about themselves in the same way that the oppressed must fight to change the status of their oppression, otherwise nothing will ever improve (Freire, 2000).


Education is the means by which future generations of a society are exposed to the ideas and knowledge of generations past. It is through the education of the youth that a culture continues to exist, that a community remains connected, and that a society evolves. If the proper education of the youth is not the primary concern of a people, the society itself begins to crumble. The youth must be protected, and they must be educated properly at all costs, or the entire system built on generations of ideas and knowledge will be lost. The focus of a society must turn primarily to education of the youth when the society sees a crumbling of values, ethics, morality, lack of focus among the people, increase in the people’s ignorance, and an increase in juvenile delinquency.

Dewey, J. (2012). Democracy and Education. Hollywood: Simon & Brown.

Emery, K., Braselmann, S., & Gold, L. R. (2010, May 20). Freedom School Curriculum. Retrieved from Mississippi Freedom School Curriculum: http://www.educationanddemocracy.org/ED_FSC.html

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc.

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Southern Education Foundation. (2014). Southern Education Foundation. Retrieved from Just Learning: The Imperative to Transform the Juvenile Justice System: http://www.southerneducation.org/Our-Strategies/Research-and-Publications/Just- Learning

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