The School-to-Prison Pipeline: How Schools Are Failing Students

Over 5.4 million students attend public and open-enrollment charter schools in Texas.  The State of Texas itself has promised these students access to high-quality education specifically to prepare them for college, a new career or the military. However, for many of these students, this promise has been broken, and they end up in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Due to disciplinary action based on behavior incidents, they are forced out of the classroom. National experts from a variety of fields (like education, criminal justice, mental health and behavioral health) have established a dangerous link: School discipline, dropout rates, and referrals to the juvenile justice system all lay the foundation of the school-to-prison pipeline.


87% of punishments in Texas schools in the school year 2017-2018 were discretionary and mandated by the Student Code of Conduct. These discretionary acts are often categorized as non-violent and non-criminal, resulting in students being funneled into the juvenile justice system when they haven’t broken any laws.

Researchers believe these high punishment rates are due to school administrators adopting a zero-tolerance approach to discipline. (Zero-tolerance policies involve the removal of a student without considering the student’s intent, self-defense, disciplinary history or other factors, such as mental or behavioral health.)

“Experts have established that children of color are more likely than their peers to be punished, even though they are not more likely to misbehave. They also are more likely to receive harsher punishments than their peers, even for the same behaviors.”

Although schools are required to identify students with special needs and provide education services and behavioral supports as necessary, these students were also reported to have been punished at higher rates.

Students who continue to be disproportionally represented in discipline data have had their ability to succeed — both academically and socially — compromised.

While it’s understandable that school administrators want their schools to be safe, these severe policies are taking away the education promised to every child in Texas from students who have broken no laws. Arbitrary decisions made by administrators are sending children into the juvenile justice system, putting their families in difficult situations and leaving youth at further risk of criminal activity.


Zero-tolerance policies are only responsible for a portion of expulsions. Some are necessary, given that many schools are not equipped to address behavioral health needs for students who have broken laws. But that’s where Alternate Education Programs like Southwest Key’s JJAEPs come in.

With over 20 years of experience serving students who have been expelled from their home campuses, Southwest Key Programs operates JJAEP campuses across five counties in Texas.  The JJAEP programs are uniquely designed to re-engage at-risk students in academic learning while addressing behavioral issues.  Many of the students served by the JJAEP successfully reintegrate back into their home campuses and even graduate upon completion of the program.

Without these programs, youth and families would have to face these challenges alone, almost guaranteeing their place in the school-to-prison pipeline.

Youth would remain at further risk of criminal activity and families would lack the resources to find the help they need. Removing programs like JJAEPs would not make the problem of disciplinary action disappear — instead, it would make the problem much worse.

JJAEPs offer students with mental and behavioral health challenges an opportunity to rejoin their peers and get the education that every child in Texas was promised.


So how do Texas educators and administrators break the pipeline?

  • Increase awareness of the at-risk student population so that educators can appropriately link the students and their families to resources and services they are eligible to receive.
  • Provide educators with resources and professional development (PD) trainings focused on promoting a supportive academic, disciplinary, and physical environment for students to learn safely. The Texas Education Agency has developed a list of trainings, frameworks, registries, and supplemental programs for district and campus staff to utilize.
  • Ensure that your campus is trauma-informed and educators are prepared to support the mental health and behavioral needs of students.

With greater awareness and a willingness to share resources with the youth and families who need it most, we can keep vulnerable youth out of the justice system — especially those who found themselves at the mercy of subjective and biased zero-tolerance policies.

Learn more about how our Juvenile Justice programs have been using remote learning to keep kids motivated this school year and how local soldiers tutor students to keep them engaged.


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