School-to-Prison Pipeline: Professor's book examines problem, explores solutions

Sociology Professor Nancy Heizeg, author of "The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline, and Racialized Double Standards"

Sociology Professor and author Nancy Heitzeg. Photo by Ryan Johnson '19.

Sociology Professor Nancy Heitzeg on the school-to-prison pipeline

Mass incarceration has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. Despite having less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. has nearly 25 percent of the world’s prison population. A major factor in the phenomenon is the school-to-prison pipeline, and one St. Kate’s professor examines the complexity of this issue in her recent book.

Sociology Professor Nancy Heitzeg’s The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Education, Discipline, and Racialized Double Standards is part of Praeger Publishing’s series on Racism in American Institutions.

“While the series has explored various aspects of institutionalized racism in education, The School-to-Prison Pipeline is the first book to examine how educational policies lead to mass incarceration. The book thus merges institutionalized racism in schools with the institutionalized racism in the criminal justice system,” say Brian D. Behnken, editor of the series.

Heitzeg begins each chapter with a true story: A 15-year-old faces trial over allegedly stealing chicken nuggets; a six-year-old kindergartener arrested and handcuffed by police after a tantrum; a 17-year-old in a medically induced coma after being tasered — for trying to break up a fight. They are all students of color.

“These gut-wrenching stories were important to include. They illustrate the real-life experience of kids caught in school-to-prison pipeline,” says Heitzeg.

She details how a color-blind policy like “zero-tolerance” that was initially developed and intended to keep kids safe, has morphed and expanded to include police in schools — with dramatic consequences for students of color. Currently, more than 3.4 million students are suspended each year and over 130,000 are expelled — double the number from the 1970s.

With the police presence in the school, record numbers of students are facing arrests for minor infractions, and a disproportionate number are students of color.

“Black students make up 18 percent of students, but account for 42 percent of referrals to law enforcement, with 35 percent of those arrests actually happening in school,” says Heitzeg.

Couple zero tolerance with No Child Left Behind, and the picture gets worse for schools that are disproportionately black and poor.

“These schools are already under-resourced, then they face the additional pressure to elevate test scores or risk losing even more money. It didn’t take long for researchers to see that zero tolerance and police in schools were being used to push out kids who may be dragging down the test scores,” explains Heitzeg.

Systematically, this combination of No Child Left Behind, zero tolerance, and the presence of police officers in schools where students are predominantly black and low-income creates a perfect storm, resulting in the school-to-prison pipeline.

But the complexity of the problem doesn't stop there. In her book, Heitzeg also tackles the link between race, medicalization and the school-to-prison pipeline.

"White students, and especially white, middle-class students, more often than not, are diverted from suspension or expulsion and given treatment. Their disruptive behavior is labeled with ADHD, or other less stigmatized conditions," says Heitzeg.

This doesn’t mean that students of color aren’t also given medical labels. If they are medicalized, they’re often given very heavy labels, including emotional behavioral disturbance, conduct disorder (a precursor to personality disorder), and intellectual disability.

“They face the very worst labels from the psychiatric manual. So what happens in under-resourced schools is that they’re sent off to special education and pulled out of mainstream classrooms. It’s a double-whammy. The kids more likely to end up in the school to prison pipeline are black kids who also carry a medical disability label,” explains Heitzeg.

Then there's the issue of educator diversity. Over 40 percent of the student population nationwide is students of color, while teachers of color make up only 17 percent of the teaching force.

Exploring new terrains of justice; re-examining priorities

With such a bleak outlook, what’s the solution? Heitzeg discusses remedies in the final chapter, including what’s currently underway at the local, state and federal levels.

“Under the Obama administration, the Department of Education in partnership with the Department of Justice has said federally for the first time in 20 years that suspension and expulsion should be the last resort and that zero tolerance should not be the guiding principal,” says Heitzeg. “There’s a move towards a more restorative justice model. That’s encouraging.”

But a complex problem requires a complex solution, she adds. Removing police entirely from schools will likely get met with resistance, and standardized testing is difficult to eliminate.

“Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline requires us to attend to both the school and the prison, to confront the cloud of color-blind racism that shrouds each of them,” says Heitzeg. “We must creatively exploring new terrains of justice, where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor.”

Our nation’s shift away from a “common good” ethos significantly impacted the shift upwards in criminalization and incarceration rates, so it’s time to shift that back, argues Heitzeg. Any long-term solution requires resources.

“Government exists in part to ensure opportunity for all people, and to bridge the gaps in poverty, housing and education,” says Heitzeg. “The argument against this in recent years is that government is too big. Yet, isn’t the prison industrial complex big government? It’s time to re-examine our priorities.”

National attention

Heitzeg has researched the school-to-prison pipeline for the past two decades, and her work is attracting a national audience. This fall, she received one of three sub grants awarded by The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a three-year, Department of Justice-funded initiative to improve relationships and increase trust between communities and the police departments that serve them.

Her project will focus on the Minneapolis school-to-prison pipeline and the role of police in schools. Currently in Minneapolis, black students are four times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. Black students make up nine percent of the student body, yet are 25 percent of referrals to police — and 90 percent of arrests made are for misdemeanors.

“This project focuses specific attention on the Northside schools where police are a regular feature and arrests, suspensions and expulsions occur at the highest rates,” says Heitzeg.

Data sources for the project include community forums, focus groups, MPS operational interviews, school arrest data from the Minneapolis Police and Hennepin County Attorney, school satisfaction surveys and district-level data.

“The aim of the exploratory study is to provide a clear picture of dynamics that shape procedural injustices, and form the basis for future research and recommendations for reducing racial disparities in arrests made in the Minneapolis Public Schools,” Heitzeg explains.

Book reading and discussion

Heitzeg will read from her book, followed by a discussion and book signing, Friday, September 30, noon-2 p.m., in 103 Fontbonne on the University’s St. Paul Campus. Part of the Imagine Sociology Series, the event is sponsored by the Departments of Sociology, Critical Studies of Race and Ethnicity, and Women’s Studies.

By Sharon Rolenc