School-to-Prison Pipeline: Are Students Getting Prepped for Jail?

November 7, 2014  |  

By now you’ve probably heard the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” used to explain the challenges urban students of color have to overcome to finish school, but what does it really mean? A group of students in Washington D.C. armed themselves with cameras to illustrate what it really looks like when your school treats you more like an inmate than a scholar.

In the nation’s capital, Black students are six-times more likely to be suspended or expelled from their school than their white counterparts. Nationwide, 16 percent of African Americans students were suspended for minor infractions in 2012, compared to just five percent of whites, according to a report by the Department of Education. Moreover, recent data found that many teachers have lower expectations for students of color than their white peers, sometimes before they even enter the classroom. With so many obstacles stacked against minority students, it’s a wonder most of them go on to finish school at all.

But what exactly are kids up against? Through Critical Exposure, a D.C.-based non-profit group, students in the 2012-2013 fellowship program created a multimedia project to show the difficulty many of them face just to get a diploma.


The eye-opening project showed city schools with airport-like metal detectors, iron security gates, bars on the windows, and armed guards. One student said he felt like a criminal just by attending school, and another student photographer admitted, “Coming in the building feels like turning in my stuff before entering a jail cell.”

Malik Thompson, a 19-year-old student who says he was kicked out of D.C. schools, credited Critical Exposure with helping him get back on track.

“I think more programs like Critical Exposure should exist where young people have avenues to begin to experience their own power, to work collaboratively together with adult supporters in order to make change in their world.”

Thompson finished high school through a home-school program and currently interns with the Gandhi Institute in Rochester, New York, advocating for social justice. None of it would have been possible without being involved in the photography fellowship.

“Critical Exposure was essential to me becoming the person I am today,”

While schools should be a place of knowledge, empowerment, and learning for our youth, far too often it’s nothing more than a pit stop on the road to the legal system. If we’re serious about cutting off the school-to-prison pipeline, as programs like Critical Exposure show us, it’s important to listen to the experiences of our youth to be sure we’re meeting their needs.

Feature image: Critical Exposure, Photographer: Karl L.

What do you think should change in the way these schools are set up?

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