Modern American Education: The Uninterrupted Path to Incarceration

by: Zack Auspitz

On August 11, 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of multiple plaintiffs to challenge the “disturbing-schools law” in South Carolina.[1] This highly controversial law essentially criminalizes disruptive behavior in South Carolina classrooms and imposes draconian punishment on students who violate it.[2] The lawsuit stems from a series of arrests in South Carolina schools for offenses such as cursing, refusing to leave a classroom at the request of a teacher, physical altercations with other students, and disorderly conduct.[3] The ACLU argues that the disturbing-schools law is unconstitutional due to its “broad reach and arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.”[4] Through its efforts in this lawsuit, the ACLU underscores an emerging trend in the United States, the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The school-to-prison pipeline is a phrase used to describe the notion that the government has established a system that places a stronger emphasis on incarceration over education.[5] Consequently, this system siphons students out of classrooms and into detention cells.[6] Throughout the United States, public schools have adopted “zero-tolerance” policies, which deviate from rehabilitative forms of discipline such as counseling, and instead encourage suspensions and in many cases, police intervention.[7] These policies often marginalize students with disabilities, those who are members of the LGBT community, and students of racial minority groups.[8]

Since the 1970s, the number of students suspended from school each year has increased exponentially.[9] In Orange County, Florida, approximately 51 percent of suspended students were black.[10] Nationally, black and Latino students constitute 70 percent of arrests that occur in schools.[11] With 66 percent of students never returning to school after incarceration, it is apparent that the current system is inherently flawed and prejudicial.[12] The widespread prevalence of zero-tolerance school policies is not only socially damaging, but also economically detrimental. In its annual subsidization of public education, the U.S. government spends roughly $10,500 per child. [13] However, the government also spends $88,000 on each child in prison.[14]

In addition to the ACLU’s diligent efforts to combat the injustices engendered by zero-tolerance school policies, various organizations such as Consortium to Prevent School Violence, the Advancement Project, and the NAACP ardently strive to seal the school-to-prison pipeline. [15] Although these organizations have tenaciously sought reform of the current system, a myriad of obstacles impede the process. Most recently, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proclaimed that he plans to eliminate suspensions of students from kindergarten to second grade. [16] However, the ban includes a loophole, which still permits suspensions if the child has already been suspended two to three times during the academic year.[17] While some may view Mayor de Blasio’s plan as a step in the right direction, it still potentially ostracizes children who may need more specialized attention or rehabilitative care.

The school-to-prison pipeline has become so deeply ingrained in the modern American educational system. The question is, how did public schools across the nation become so infected with such a discriminatory system? I don’t believe there is a single answer to such a complex question. However, I hold the view that it is not an isolated issue, but rather a potpourri of contributing factors such as alarming rates of violence in schools, structural racism, and the gradual dissolution of social boundaries that distinguish proper school discipline from excessive punishment. Benjamin Franklin once articulated, “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”[18] In consideration of Franklin’s assertion, the United States is long overdue for a reevaluation of its priorities.


[1] Deanna Pan and Paul Bowers, Federal Lawsuit Challenges South Carolina’s Disturbing School’s Law, The Post and Courier (Aug. 11, 2016, 10:25 PM),


[2] S.C. GEN. STAT. § 16-17-420 (1976).


[3] Pan and Bowers, supra note 1.


[4] Id.


[5] Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, Putting an End to the School to Prison Pipeline, Systems Change Consulting (Jan. 9, 2013),


[6] School-to-Prison Pipeline, ACLU,


[7] Flannery, The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Time to Shut it Down, NEAToday (Jan. 25, 2015),


[8] Id.


[9] Id.


[10] Matthew Lynch, Black Boys in Crisis: The School-to-Prison Pipeline, EDUC. Week (Aug. 8, 2016 7:35 AM),


[11] Id.


[12] Alexander Reynolds, The School-to-Prison Pipeline is Institutional Racism, The Huffington Post (Sept. 9, 2015 5:48PM),


[13] Id.


[14] Id.


[15] Nancy Heitzeg, Education or Incarceration: Zero Tolerance Policies and The School to Prison Pipeline, 2009 EDUC. RES. INFO. CTR. 16, 21.


[16] George Joseph, Why Kindergarteners Might Still Be Suspended in New York City, The Atlantic (Aug. 12, 2016),


[17] Id.


[18] David Akadjian, 7 Things Our Founders Believed About Public Education, The Daily Kos (Jan. 27, 2015 12:50PM),

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