Volume 59

"Education Under Armed Guard": An Analysis of the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Washington, D.C.

by John A.D. Marinelli

Nationwide, America’s middle and high school students face the threat of arrest and incarceration as a consequence of their conduct at school. Around the country, kids have been handcuffed and criminally prosecuted for things like feigned burp-ing, leaving class without permission, and getting off a bus too early. Termed the “school-to-prison pipeline,” this phenomenon has drawn increasing attention and advocacy in recent years. 

The school-to-prison pipeline remains alive and well in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. A substantial majority of the city’s public-school students face police in their schools, and many are referred to law enforcement for classroom mis-conduct. More still face the prospect of suspension and expulsion, and these punishments substantially increase students’ likelihood of later interaction with the criminal justice system. And while Black students comprise less than two-thirds of the city’s public-school population, they experience nearly all school-related arrests. District policymakers have made some strides toward combatting the school-to-prison pipe-line. But further commitment remains necessary to ensure that, as students continue to return to in-person learning, they do not face criminal consequences at school. 

To that end, this Note incorporates original research to analyze the school-to- prison pipeline in Washington, D.C., focusing in particular on 2018–19—the last full year of in-person instruction before the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a shift to online learning. Part I of this Note describes the origins of the school-to- prison pipeline and identifies practices that contribute to the nationwide phenomenon. That Part also shows how these practices disproportionately affect Black students and negatively impact children around the country. Part II analyzes the degree to which these contributing practices existed in Washington, D.C. during the 2018–19 school year. Finally, Part III proposes reforms that can reduce the rates at which Washington, D.C. students face criminal consequences for class-room misbehavior as they resume in-person learning. 

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