top of page
  • Writer's pictureThe Dyslexia Initiative

The School to Prison Pipeline

by Ashley Roberts

This is a topic a lot of people talk about, but how many of you believe this is actually happening?

I still remember the first time I heard the concept of pipeline to prison. That was a shocking thing as a parent to hear, and so I dug in only to find several articles on why it wasn't true, because let's face it, unless you dig in hard it's easy to find articles to support any point of view, so I was ignorantly satisfied with what I had found, but as my knowledge base regarding dyslexia, literacy and education has expanded over the years, the reality that a pipeline from our schools to our prisons does in fact exist, cannot be ignored. This is a reality we need to face head on without fear or preconceived notions. It’s time we shelve what we think we know and look at the cold hard facts of what our educational system has created, but even that isn’t enough. This is a reality we have to stop talking about and start changing.

Federal Findings

First let’s start with cold hard facts. Our own government acknowledges the existence of the school to prison pipeline. Here are just some of the published findings which can be found in the report “Beyond Suspensions: Examining School Discipline Policies and Connections to the School-to-Prison Pipeline for Students of Color with Disabilities”, a Briefing Before The United States Commission on Civil Rights Held in Washington, DC, based on a report dated July, 2019 (

• “Students of color as a whole, as well as by individual racial group, do not commit more disciplinable offenses than their white peers – but black students, Latino students, and Native American students in the aggregate receive substantially more school discipline than their white peers and receive harsher and longer punishments than their white peers receive for like offenses.

• Students with disabilities are approximately twice as likely to be suspended throughout each school level compared to students without disabilities.

• The U.S. Department of Education recognizes that since it began collecting state-level data on suspensions and expulsions in the 1998-1999 school year, a consistent pattern persists of schools suspending or expelling black students with disabilities at higher rates than their proportion of the population of students with disabilities. The most recent CRDC data reflects that, with the exception of Latinx and Asian American students with disabilities, students of color with disabilities were more likely than white students with disabilities to be expelled without educational services.

• In addition to missed class time, excessive exclusionary discipline negatively impacts classroom engagement and cohesion and increases the likelihood excluded students will be retained in grade, drop out of school, or be placed in the juvenile justice system. Black students with disabilities lost approximately 77 more days of instruction compared to white students with disabilities.”

An Education System That's Not Educating

Harsh statement? To some, perhaps, but to those of us in the know it's not nearly harsh enough. The reality is current educational philosophies are akin to white collar crime. Damning statistics are published every two years that show, in increasing numbers, that our children are not learning how to read in droves. The last NAEP scores had 62% of 4th graders reading below proficient levels. That number increases in 8th grade to 66%, and scores fell 2% points from 2017 to 2019.

Our nation’s schools are deeply entrenched in balanced literacy. Unfortunately, nothing within balanced literacy will teach anyone to read other than the small percentage of children who will just automatically start to read, but the fact is a certain percentage of those children will need the supports that will come through structured literacy at some point in their educational career.

Further, let’s specifically consider the findings stated above from the federal government’s report and consider the impact. “These interactions contribute to a cycle of negative encounters that can lead to or exacerbate a student’s behavioral and academic problems, disengagement from learning, and disconnection from school (McNeely & Falci, 2004). These interactions also contribute to dropout, delinquency, arrest, and incarceration (D. Osher, Quinn, Poirer, & Rutherford, 2003; D. Osher, Woodruff, & Sims, 2002). (

Behavior Before Learning Disability

In the prior article, Behaviors Before Dyslexia by Lauren Taylor, you read a powerful and emotional account from a mother turned advocate of how the journey of behavior took precious time away from her child. The fact is our schools look to behavior first. In a system designed to the behavior of girls, our boys are punished for being children at very young ages, and it becomes a slippery slope of negative reinforcement that, without the proper intervention, is only going to erode.

A Smart Child That's Struggling Will, What?

What we as advocates know is that if an intelligent child is continually struggling, without access to someone to explain why they’re struggling, or help them to break through their struggle, they will act out with behavior.

“The amygdala is a collection of cells near the base of the brain. There are two, one in each hemisphere or side of the brain. This is where emotions are given meaning, remembered, and attached to associations and responses to them (emotional memories). It’s key to how you process strong emotions like fear and pleasure. When you feel threatened and afraid, the amygdala automatically activates the fight-or-flight response by sending out signals to release stress hormones that prepare your body to fight or run away. This response is triggered by emotions like fear, anxiety, aggression, and anger.” (Healthline, 2019 -,anxiety%2C%20aggression%2C%20and%20anger.)

Additionally, “The frontal lobes, home to key components of the neural circuitry underlying “executive functions” such as planning, working memory, and impulse control, are among the last areas of the brain to mature; they may not be fully developed until halfway through the third decade of life.” (June, 2010 -

What this all comes down to is the expectation of behavior from a child that a child is not capable of demonstrating or expressing. Triggered into fear and anger, very human emotions that all people possess, the acting out, depending on the level of fear and anger, can reach violent levels. However, instead of trying to reach these children and help them find the words they do not possess or to self- regulate, they are confined, restrained, arrested, which begins the pathway to the juvenile system, and eventually the adult prison system.

Obtaining An LD Diagnosis Is A Gift of Privilege

As has been discussed of late, to obtain a dyslexia diagnosis is to have a diagnosis of privilege. Too often in the poorer schools within our country one cannot discern which children are deprived of educational opportunity versus those who are truly struggling with a learning disability, therefore both are lumped together, under-served, misunderstood, dismissed, denied, left to their own devices, which typically leads to an inevitable outcome based on the behavior issues which may arise from being so under-served.

Under Investment in "Troubled" Schools

It is challenging to lure teachers into “troubled” schools. The discipline issues keep the majority of teachers away, and as the profession remains predominately female and white, (National Center for Education Statistics, May, 2020 -, this will remain so until drastic measures are taken.

Education curriculums at the university level need to shift from psychology and behavioral studies to structured literacy and learning disabilities. As the shift from balanced literacy to structured literacy begins to level the playing field for all students regardless of color and socio-economic status, and as teachers and administrators are taught to understand learning disabilities and the challenges that may arise from those LD’s, the schools will be less hard pressed to lure teachers and administrators of all races.

Further, tax dollars remain the primary source of income for schools. For poor areas, their schools remain poor. States have yet to figure out how to “balance this pendulum” and have financial distribution be fair and equitable for all students.

Criminalizing Behavior

“Through its Cradle to Prison Pipeline initiative, the Children's Defense Fund has studied the grim effects of being trapped in a criminalizing environment from which the obstacles to escape are formidable. The Cradle to Prison Pipeline consists of a complex array of social and economic factors as well as political choices that converge to reduce the odds that poor children — especially poor black and Latino children — will grow up to become productive adults. These factors include limited access to health care (including mental health care), under-performing schools, broken child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and a toxic youth culture that praises pimps and glorifies violence.

Hardened by long terms of incarceration, released criminalized youngsters return to communities that are ill equipped to reintegrate them positively. Outcast and unemployed, they become the teachers and role models for a new crop of youngsters pushed onto the streets of America's most depressed neighborhoods. This cycle of infection makes the Cradle to Prison Pipeline one of the most damaging health problems in America today.” (

Police States

The above statistics are not just playing out in America’s poorest schools, but in every school across the country. Countless stories are shared across various forms of media of small children being dragged into isolation rooms, left alone, commonly in the dark, to scream it out.

Uneducated in learning disabilities and untrained in de-escalation tactics, school administrators call police before parents to deal with “problem children” due to a lack of understanding about their disability and the behavior that may arise as a result.

Children are not met with understanding therapists or counselors, but are instead pinned to the floor, handcuffed, and taken to police stations to be booked for assault. Think about the emotional damage this causes. In a single instant you alter a child’s trajectory forever.

Far too many of us have seen this play out on videos with too many autistic children, but this is happening on too wide of a scale to too many children with various LD’s, and, as we have shown here, statistically out of proportion to children of color at an alarming rate.

The Road Begins Earlier Than Many Realize

We are expelling our children in preschool, as young as infants and toddlers, but predominately among 3 and 4-year-old children.

“According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), each year over 8,700 three and four-year-old children are expelled from their state-funded preschool or prekindergarten classrooms.”

“Early research published in 2005 found that preschool children are expelled at three times the rate of children in Kindergarten through 12th grade. Importantly, the majority of these young children, at least 42 percent of preschool children suspended, are identified as African American boys. These racial and gender disparities are evident as early as preschool, where black students are 3.6 times as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as their white classmates. Additionally, while boys represent 54 percent of preschool enrollment, they constitute 79 percent of all suspended preschool children. Research indicates that a child’s early educational experiences greatly influence their development and outcomes later in life, making these data particularly consequential.” Institute for Child Success, 2018


So, we have disproportionate suspensions and expulsions that also occur at an alarming rate, we are exacerbating behavior problems as a result, in an environment already not actually teaching children how to read, not diagnosing learning disabilities or providing adequate services, and yet we’re surprised there are consequences for these actions? And, we’re not talking about PERSONAL consequences for these actions, we’re talking SOCIETAL. This is impacting our culture, our economy, our citizenry.

While, yes, I’m walking into education’s house and telling them they’re doing it wrong, and that’s not going to sit well with anyone, what I hope for is courage. We the people have it within our power to change the course for our children, but it’s going to take immense courage. The shackles of balanced literacy have to be thrown into the deep abyss of the ocean, never to be found again, and that’s just the beginning. Ending balanced literacy is not the only thing that needs to happen here. Our educators must understand disabilities, and we must take police out of our schools and put highly trained counselors inside of them instead.

We know what works, and frankly, many of us are sick of talking about it. The fact is that the cost to our society is overwhelming, in tax dollars, prisons, health care, and the consequences of illiteracy. We’re talking BILLIONS with a B. $225 Billion a year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime and loss of tax revenue because of unemployment and $232 Billion a year in health care costs linked to low literacy. That’s $457 Billion a year! And, the children of parents with low literacy have a 72% chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves. How much money do we have to collectively spend as a society before we wake up? And, how much do we have to spend before it’s too late to turn the tide?

This needs to scare you! We owe it to our children, the very future of our society, to educate them all. We need to be having the tough conversations. Education must be priority #1 for all of us. We can no longer afford to sit idly by and assume that our educational system is amazing and our kids are ok because they’re not.

Raise your voice! Challenge your school boards, your legislators both state and federal. Ask questions. Demand answers. Don’t accept non-answers, evasions, and delay tactics. We no longer have time for evasions. Our children’s lives, ALL OF OUR CHILDREN’S LIVES, depend on us demanding that education change.

2,624 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Teresa Aracri
Teresa Aracri
Nov 03, 2023

Thank you for this article - It is so informative and love how you tie it all together from an educational, societal, political perspectives down to your school board elects. What questions would you suggest parents ask of their school board candidates?

bottom of page