Rockaway's School to Prison Pipeline

As the school year gears up, millions of students and teachers head back to the classroom. Supplies are purchased, goals are set, and learning begins. The routine is familiar, but what about the less desirable aspects of the current educational system, like the school-to-prison pipeline? Will this year bring about a change to a structure that has claimed the lives of students across the nation?  


From the first day of school, a record of student behavior is kept that, quite literally, stays with the student for the rest of their lives. Any type of disciplinary practice that is used with a student is kept on record, and often builds upon the last one, making each repercussion worse than the last. Exclusionary disciplinary policies such as the popular zero tolerance policy have made it incredibly difficult for students who make even the smallest offenses to avoid suspensions and/or expulsions. Typically, there is a set of predetermined punishments for a wide-variety of violations with no differentiation between serious and non-serious offenses, meaning everyone gets the same treatment regardless of the offense. Zero tolerance policies gravely interrupt the education process. Once students are suspended or expelled, it leaves them vulnerable to outside influences that could have a negative impact on their lives such as drugs, gangs, and gun violence. Initially, the zero-tolerance policy, along with an increase of School Safety Agents, was meant to decrease violence in schools, but has had an adverse effect on youth of color. Specifically, when students are removed from the classroom multiple times, they have difficulties re-integrating with the class. This leads to students falling behind and becoming even more disruptive. Having a single suspension increases a student’s likelihood to drop out by nearly 15 percent. Additionally, the presence of School Safety Agents industrializes and criminalizes the educational environment, making what should be a safe space for learning look and feel more like a prison.


The school to prison pipeline is a term that describes the increasing contact that students have with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. Zero tolerance policies disproportionately affect Black and Latino students and are the main component in the school-to-prison pipeline. According to an insightful report published by the Center for Popular Democracy and The Urban Youth Collaborative, black students in New York City served 54 percent of all long term suspensions given, although they only make up 27 percent of the student body. Black students also served longer suspensions and were more likely to be suspended for subjective misconduct, such as profanity and insubordination. Overall, the police are 8.3 times more likely to intervene in a disciplinary actions that involve black students as compared to white students and 4.4 times more likely to intervene if the student in Latinx. This system almost directly mirrors the prison system, where black civilians are convicted for things that their white peers often aren’t and are given longer sentences for the same crimes.


High schools on the Rockaway Peninsula have some of the highest principal and superintendent suspensions in New York City high schools. According to city data, in the 2015-2016 school year, high schools in Queens doled out more than 700 Principal and Superintendent Suspensions. Rockaway Collegiate and Frederick Douglas Academy VI lead the pack with 139 and 111 suspensions respectively. According to a report by the Correctional Association of New York, Far Rockaway has one of the highest rates of juvenile detention in New York City, along with South Jamaica, Harlem, Brownsville, and the South Bronx. Communities with the highest rates of detention also have the highest rates of poverty, poor housing, and under-performing schools. However, it is important to note that while these areas have high rates of juvenile detention, juveniles account for less than 4% of arrests for major felonies. Too often, children are taken out of productive environments as a punishment for bad behavior—this is where restorative justice steps in.


Currently, the environment in schools can be tense. With numerous School Safety Agents and metal detectors, it can be easy to feel like you’re in a prison instead of a school. Restorative justice aims to diminish zero tolerance policies and decrease the presence of School Safety Agents. Instead of suspending, expelling and/or arresting students for not following the rules, restorative justice would allow for students to remain in a productive environment while also getting to the root of their misbehaving. Restorative justice practices work to change the tone of the school community to one that values rehabilitation, rather than punishment. Some of the toughest schools across the country, including those in West Philadelphia and Chicago, have implemented restorative justice practices in their schools and experienced a vast improvement in student behavior. In a study conducted in Philadelphia, juveniles offenders who participated in a restorative justice based program were almost a 75% less likely to commit a new delinquent act than those who had not participated.

Restorative justice programs encourage the implementation of common-sense solutions, including revising codes of conduct to limit disciplinary practices that keep children out of school, adopting school-wide preventive and positive discipline policies, providing regular training and support on positive approaches to discipline for all school personnel and ensuring that students and parents have a right to participate in decision-making affecting school policies. In New York City, the Department of Education offers specialized training for teachers, counselors, and school administrators to learn about restorative justice practices like Restorative Circles. Restorative Circles give students, faculty, parents, and staff an opportunity to discuss issues that impact the school community. Restorative Circles work to prevent violence by intervening before negative incidents have the opportunity to escalate.

In Baltimore, schools are using meditation to de-escalate tensions between students and reduce the number of classroom removals. By testing alternative methods to suspensions and classroom removals, educators are actively fighting to remove the school-to-prison pipeline. While practices like Baltimore’s are a step in the right direction, there will need to be a system wide change in thinking across the country in order to change the outcomes for black and brown students.

In New York City, Mayor de Blasio and School Chancellor Carmen Fariña are working together to combat the pipeline. After modifying the discipline code in 2015 to prevent students in kindergarten through second grade from getting suspended, the number of city suspensions has dropped by 7,000 cases from 2014-2015 to 2015-2016. However, even though the number of suspensions have decreased, when looking at the demographics there is still cause for alarm. Nearly 50% of all suspended students were black, however, black students only make up 27% of NYC’s K-12 student population. While the Mayor’s Office and the Department of Education are working to dismantle the school-to-prison  pipeline, the City needs to realign its budget with its talking points. Last year, the city spent upwards of $350 million in the School Safety Division, but only $2.4 million on Restorative Justice initiatives. Until New York puts its money where its mouth is, black and brown students across the city will continue to suffer.