Alternative Schools and Race: Their Contribution to The School-to-Prison-Pipeline

By: Kelli Swain

“The School-to-Prison-Pipeline is one of the greatest causes of racial and economic inequality in the Unites States.”  It is a either a direct or indirect path from school to prison.   The student can either be arrested and charged for school misbehavior, or they can be pushed out of school through exclusionary school discipline policies. Race is one of several contributing factors that facilitate the pipeline.

Suspension rates have risen across all racial groups; however, the spike has been most dramatic for children of color.  These children are more likely to be arrested at school than the white children, even when both have committed the same offense.  California is a state that is representative of such a trend.  There seems to be a direct correlation between school systems pushing out both black and Latino students and their entrance into the criminal justice system.  This correlation was determined by considering two factors: (1) 70% of prison inmates are school dropouts; and (2) black and Latinos represent more than 70% of the state’s prison population.  Interestingly, this trend has nothing to do with students of color displaying higher rates of misbehavior than white students; rather it infers that those children are simply punished more for those behaviors.

A School’s use of exclusionary discipline policies, such as suspensions and expulsions, are also a huge contributor to the pipeline.  They force children out of the school and onto a path that usually ends in incarceration, because even when the students return after suspension or expulsion, often they feel stigmatized and begin to fall behind in their studies, which eventually leads to a decision to drop out altogether.  Students forced out of regular school and placed into alternative schools often face a more significant stigma.

Alternative schools are not an acceptable replacement for regular school.  Academics at these schools can be, and mostly are, inferior to academics at regular schools.  Some of these schools are run by private companies, which allows them the exemption from many educational accountability standards, which in turn may cause a failure to provide a proper education to those students who may actually need it the most.  This results in the students going back to their regular school completely unprepared, or the system passes them from the alternative school into the juvenile justice system; neither outcome is acceptable.

Alternative schools are not an acceptable alternative for disruptive students’ education and should be dismantled, with a more appropriate alternative considered or created.  By dismantling these alternative schools, we can attempt to disrupt the School-to-Prison-Pipeline in hopes of eventually eliminating it.


Jonathon Arellano-Jackson, Court Igniting Change: But What Can We Do?  How Juvenile Defenders Can Disrupt The School-to-Prison-Pipeline, 13 Seattle J. Soc. Just. 751 (2015)

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