Beginning in the 1980s, the public educational system in the United States has witnessed the introduction and operation of the school-to-prison pipeline, a systematic process by which students are forced out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Schools have adopted harsh policies and practices that criminalize students’ behaviors, extend severe disciplinary measures often prohibiting students from attending school by suspension or expulsion, force students to come into contact with law enforcement, and flush students into the juvenile or criminal justice systems. The schools in which the pipeline operates are primarily underfunded and serve low-income and majority-minority communities, implicating that economically and racially marginalized populations are those primarily victimized by the pipeline and by which are absorbed into the juvenile and criminal justice systems (Welch and Payne 2014) (UniqueWritersBay 2020). The school-to-prison pipeline fuels mass incarceration (Barnes 2018) and preserves social stratification through systematic educational disempowerment and disproportionate rates of impact on marginalized communities.
The harsh punishments doled out from zero-tolerance policies and substantial police presence in schools- the primary mechanisms of the school-to-prison pipeline- create harmful environments that can destabilize students’ health and development. The trauma students face as a result of the daily interaction with the school-to-prison pipeline’s apparatus can diminish emotional and mental well-being. The emotional and mental impact on students attributed to the school-to-prison pipeline occurs on a spectrum, meaning that while some may experience little to no effect, others may be implicated more severely and experience emotional distress and even develop mental health disorders such as depression or anxiety. In these more severe cases, mental health disorders can affect or alter a student’s mood, thinking, and behavior (Mayo Clinic 2019).
However, the behaviors that are symptomatic of mental health disorders, such as emotional outbursts and avoiding school, are often subjected to zero-tolerance policies and the severe punishments employed by the school-to-prison pipeline. The actions of students generated out of emotional distress may be used as grounds for disciplinary action that force a student out of school or put them in contact with law enforcement or justice systems, which furthers the pipeline.
Therefore, the school-to-prison pipeline may not only provoke the emergence of mental health disorders in some students, but the pipeline also exploits mental health disorders in order to facilitate itself.