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School-to-Prison Pipeline in American Justice


The school-to-prison pipeline is a tendency in which schools apply harsh disciplinary policies on their students. It is destructive for students’ lives and can have severe effects on their future. Justice systems make a significant impact on the way school authorities manage and implement such policies. This paper studies the problem by reviewing two articles regarding the school-to-prison pipeline and its aspects related to justice systems.

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Criminal Justice System and School Disciplinary Policies

Curtis, A. J. (2014). Tracing the school-to-prison pipeline from zero-tolerance policies to juvenile justice dispositions. The Georgetown Law Journal, 102, 1251-1277.

The first article investigates the connection between strict disciplinary policies and the ways students enter the juvenile justice system. Curtis (2014) studies the justifications for harsh school policies, their critiques, and the factors that influence judges’ dispositional decisions against students. The author notes that, initially, schools started to implement zero-tolerance policies as a response to drug use and gang activity among students (Curtis, 2014). The zero-tolerance approach is based on the idea that removing ill-behaved students from schools can create a safe learning environment and prevent others from disruptive behavior.

There are several arguments in support of zero-tolerance policies. One of them insists that school violence is an acute problem, and students must realize that punishment for misconduct can be severe. Another common justification is that zero-tolerance helps schools treat all cases of disruptive behavior equally. However, arguments against such policies prevail. One of them suggests that school violence has declined in recent years. Zero-tolerance policies are not the reason for such decline as the recessionary period had started before their implementation. The most common criticism of this disciplinary system is that students of color usually receive serious punishment (Curtis, 2014). Their white counterparts, however, are less likely to be subject to harsh punitive measures.

There are several ways students enter the juvenile justice system. The most common one is school referrals. In 2000, in forty-three states schools had to report students to law enforcement for disciplinary violations (Curtis, 2014). The adoption of the zero-tolerance policy resulted in the increased prevalence of police officers. They also serve as linking elements between young people and justice systems. The author reports that more than 50% of all students’ cases proceed formally, and only around 20% of them are rejected (Curtis, 2014). Race often plays a critical role in the way the claims are processed, as the system is highly discriminative.

How the Justice System Contributes to Zero-Tolerance Policies

Nance, J. P. (2016). Students, police, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Washington University Law Review, 93, 919-987.

The second article studies the laws contributing to zero-tolerance policies and the results of involving students in the criminal justice system. According to Nance (2016), some people believe that arresting or incarcerating students may help schoolchildren understand the disruptiveness of their behavior. However, the school-to-prison pipeline results in rather severe consequences. The research shows that detaining young people reinforces their violent actions, limits future educational and employment opportunities, damages their mental health, and, most importantly, increases the chance of their future involvement in the justice system. The author points out that there are laws that contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline evolvement (Nance, 2016). For example, all school districts that receive federal funds under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act must have a policy of referral to law enforcement of any student who brings a weapon to school (Nance, 2016). Moreover, many legislatures insist that school officials should refer students to the criminal justice system even if offenses do not include a weapon, such as vandalism of school property, and theft, and robbery.

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The article underlines that students’ constitutional protections are limited. For example, courts have weakened students’ Fourth Amendment rights in schools to support educational institutions in establishing discipline. Currently, school officials are permitted to use intensive surveillance methods to maintain control. The author points out that such policies, as well as police officers’ regular presence at schools, are predictive of greater chances that students are referred to law enforcement for low-level offenses. It means that currently, educational institutions continue to sustain the development of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Evaluative Commentary

Both articles underline the negative aspects of the school-to-prison pipeline and the reason zero-tolerance policy gained acceptance. It is essential that Curtis and Nance point out that disciplinary methods are predisposed to engage students in the criminal justice system. The article by Curtis offers a thorough examination of the topic; its strong point is detailed research on the current tendencies regarding the school-to-prison pipeline, and its justifications and critiques. It is notable that the author suggests alternatives for punitive sanctions and the ways of excluding children from juvenile justice systems. The second article does not offer any solutions to the problem, which, in my opinion, is its weak point. However, Nance admits that changes are necessary and there is a need to find better ways to discipline students. Both articles provide valuable insight into the drawbacks of schools’ disciplinary policies and their connection with justice systems.

It is crucial to note that the school-to-prison pipeline is a destructive tendency that has to be changed. Even if it was initiated to improve students’ safety at schools, it is proven to be damaging to young people’s mental health, behavior, and future opportunities. From the articles I have learned that criminal justice systems make a significant contribution to zero-tolerance policies. It means that educational institutions are predisposed to support the school-to-prison pipeline. In my opinion, it is possible to improve schools’ disciplinary systems by reviewing the laws that affect them. It can be the first step to eliminate the harmful effects of the school-to-prison pipeline.


Curtis, A. J. (2014). Tracing the school-to-prison pipeline from zero-tolerance policies to juvenile justice dispositions. The Georgetown Law Journal, 102(4), 1251-1277.

Nance, J. P. (2016). Students, police, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Washington University Law Review, 93(4), 919-987.

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