Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline: The Ending PUSHOUT Act’s Focus on Black Girls
In Florida, a school resource officer (SRO) arrested Kaia, a Black kindergartener for having a tantrum, attempting to charge her with battery (see video). In North Carolina, a SRO tackled 14-year-old Rockell, applying his full weight on her back for attempting to leave school without a pass. In South Carolina, a SRO flipped 15-year-old Shakara while she was at her desk, put her in a chokehold, and threw her to the floor for refusing to surrender her cellphone. These are far from isolated incidents — they highlight the disturbing pattern of brutality and arrest of Black youth in schools. While the presence of SROs has become increasingly prevalent in schools, it is critical to shed light on the alarming consequences of punitive discipline and the role SROs have in the school-to-prison pipeline.
Tragically, in 43 states and the District of Columbia, Black students are arrested in school at disproportionately high levels, and their experiences are often buried under a broken system that perpetuates mass incarceration. Due to the increase of SROs and overly harsh school discipline policies, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley reintroduced in the 118th Congress the Ending PUSHOUT Act. The bill acknowledges the harmful ways in which students of color, particularly Black girls, are criminalized and overpoliced at school, and invests in safe and nurturing school environments for all students. The bill establishes federal grants for school districts that commit to banning harmful practices and adopting evidence-based approaches, such as restorative justice, that help address the socio-economic inequities such as poverty, trauma, hunger, and violence — which often impact the behavior of Black students.
Addressing School-Based Conflicts
While police involvement is supposed to be reserved for instances regarding the health and safety of students and school staff, schools often rely on law enforcement for routine discipline. When SROs become involved in more benign matters, their approach often prioritizes punitive measures that apply the full weight of the criminal justice system on students. Talking back to teachers, disruptive behavior, or even minor scuffles can quickly escalate to arrests, brutality, or other unnecessary involvement from the criminal justice system. This aggressive response views student misbehavior through a police-first lens and treats normal adolescent behavior as major legal offenses. Instead, schools should be nurturing, safe, and supportive environments that implement a more positive alternative to addressing school-based conflicts.
By implementing restorative justice practices, educators can develop a better understanding of their students’ experiences and backgrounds. This understanding fosters a safe and supportive environment where students feel acknowledged, listened to, and valued. By embracing restorative practices, educators actively promote open dialogue and create a transformative space for students to hold each other accountable, resolve conflicts, and build community and repair relationships. This investment in comprehensive support systems is key to improving student well-being, and ending the zero-tolerance policies that prevent many Black students from achieving a successful and safe education.
Black female students, in particular, face the brunt of this punitive approach and continue to be funneled into negative interactions with law enforcement at a young age. Often times, Black girls get the worst of it: Studies have found that they are seven times more likely to receive more than one out-of-school suspensions compared to White girls of the same age. Black girls are also often adultified, which results in stricter punishments based on biased perceptions. This stereotype, combined with the notion that Black women are inherently insubordinate, leads to educators viewing Black girls as more suspicious, provocative, and aggressive than their White peers, even when their behavior is the same. The prejudice fuels the aggressive discipline, as the misbehavior of these students is viewed as a deliberate violation of adult social norms, rather than a normal part of learning and growing as children.
The Consequences of Racial Disparity in School Discipline
Many of the subjective discipline policies that disproportionately impact Black girls are not designed to help students learn from their mistakes, but rather to punish the behavior and make Black girls an example for other students. For example, why wasn’t six-year-old Kaia taken to a counselor for her tantrum instead of being arrested? Why wasn’t Shakara asked why she needed her phone instead of being brutalized? This dangerously abusive overreaction to misbehavior lacks nuance, often imposing severe discipline for minor infractions without considering individual circumstances or intent. This one-size-fits-all approach also fails to acknowledge the complexity of student behavior and inhibits school staff from addressing underlying issues or providing necessary support. Moreover, the punitive discipline enforced by these officers further exacerbates feelings of alienation, stress, and a sense of being trapped within a system that is inherently biased.
Now is the time to recognize the opportunity that the Ending PUSHOUT bill presents in addressing the underlying factors that funnel Black youth into the criminal justice system. By supporting this act, Congress can create equitable and supportive educational environments for all students — especially Black girls, who feel the brunt of harsh discipline practices the most.