Student Discipline in Wisconsin and the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Adding Fuel to the Fire

By: Dwight Quichua

The school-to-prison pipeline is a term coined to show how students are being forced out of public schools and introduced to the juvenile and adult justice systems.  A policy enacted by public schools that facilitates juveniles to the pipeline is the use, more specifically, the overuse, of school discipline.  Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick’s article Children in School: Student Discipline and the School-To-Prison Pipeline explores the effect student discipline in Wisconsin public schools has in pushing students through the pipeline.

In Wisconsin, the two most prevalent forms of discipline by public school officials are suspension and expulsion.  These officials have considerable authority to discipline their students. So long as the student and parents of the students are given due process, and the discipline is not discriminatory-based, then such discipline is considered reasonable.

For suspensions, the school district must inform the student and his parents of the reasons for suspension along with giving parents prompt notice of the suspension.  No legal review is available aside from appealing to a school district administrator.  For expulsions, which can be indefinitely or permanently, the threshold to expel a student is minimal.  The school district must show the facts alleged are true, one of the expulsion grounds is met, and the expulsion is in the best interest of the school.  As long as the school gave written notice with specifics as to the student’s alleged conduct, the relevant statutes involved, the rights afforded to the student, the time and place of the hearing, and that the hearing may result in expulsion from school, these expulsion decisions are per se not reviewable.

If a student is expelled, his options for continuing education are restricted basically to seeking admission into a private school or another public school (though admission is not guaranteed), or by resorting to a home-school education.  Without an opportunity for education, what is next for an expelled student?

In Wisconsin, and throughout the United States, students of certain racial and ethnic groups are disproportionately subject to school discipline.  A letter on the “Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline” was issued by the Department of Justice and Department of Education in January 2014 and has provided excellent guidance on the correlation between student discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline.  Data shows an extraordinary racial disparity with regards to the administration of student discipline.  African-Americans are three times more than likely to suffer suspension or expulsion than their white peers.  In addition, over half of the arrests or law enforcement referrals involved either African-American or Hispanic students.

Finally, the data shows school discipline has contributed significant negative outcomes, both in education and in the long-term, and has aided in the facilitation of the school-to-prison pipeline.  The data also shows negative effects of school discipline on students, such as disengaging academically, behavior issues, turning to drug abuse, and lastly, dropping out of school and into the juvenile justice system.

The guidance letter points out specific practices by schools that are prohibited, and even proposes certain remedies for schools that use such discriminatory discipline techniques.  For advocates of schools eliminating these discriminatory discipline practices, this guidance has been essential.  Yet, as the author suggests, the advocacy must continue, with the vital assistance of school officials, in order to reduce or eviscerate the school-to-prison pipeline.


Jeffrey D. Spitzer-Resnick, Children in School: Student Discipline and the School-to-Prison Pipeline, 87 Sep. Wis. Law. 38 (2014).

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