The School to Prison Pipeline

In 1994, President Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act into law requiring schools to expel students who brought a gun to school regardless of the circumstances. School across the county responded by implementing “zero-tolerance policies” for a wide range of behaviors, including fighting, drug possession, insubordination, and even dress code violations. The School District of Philadelphia (SDP) was no exception. As a result, thousands of students in SDP and school districts across the country were pushed into the juvenile justice system, creating the veritable “school-to-prison pipeline.” These policies disproportionately affected African American students, who were arrested at higher rates than their peers for similar behaviors.

Zero tolerance polices have hurt more children, especially black and brown children, than they have helped. While the number of students removed from school due to expulsion or arrest skyrocketed, school climates did not improve. The number of behavioral incidents in schools remained high, likely because zero-tolerance policies fail to address the root causes of student misbehavior. Zero tolerance policies disregard the fact that many students have been and continue to be deeply affected by traumatic events in their homes or neighborhoods, with many experiencing poverty, hunger, unstable family lives, and street violence. As a result, these children come to school with heightened fight or flight responses that put them on edge, increase their perceptions of threat, and make them more likely to engage in disruptive behavior. Furthermore, these children face very real threats in their neighborhoods that may lead them to carry pepper spray or a pocket knife, for example, so they feel safe on their way to and from school.


In 2012, the SDP ended its zero tolerance policy in favor of a disciplinary code that emphasizes an individualized approach, giving principals and staff more discretion in their responses to misbehavior. This change reflected an understanding by SDP administrators that arresting students for minor infractions did not lead to improved school climate and instead had lasting negative implications for the students arrested.

In 2014, the School District of Philadelphia established a formal partnership with the Philadelphia Police Department and The Department of Human Services to implement a cross systems based program to keep kids in school and out of court and to shift policing culture to treating, not incarcerating, our most vulnerable children. This program, the Philadelphia Police School Diversion Program (PPSDP), works together to provide a wide net of counseling to and social services for families, parents, and students when they first encounter trouble in school.


The collaborative believes that children who act out in school need to feel safe and supported, not pushed away, isolated, and rejected. It is in the best interest of students, schools, and community members to handle low-level misdemeanor delinquent acts without arrest. By diverting students from arrest and instead connecting them to individualized prevention services, PPSDP can address the root causes of student misbehavior rather than trapping them in the legal system for minor infractions. This is one important step towards derailing the “school-to-prison pipeline.”