Busting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Restorative interventions protect students from out-of-school suspensions and are a promising, inclusive strategy to improve school discipline

Reviewed by Tyrone Fleurizard


School discipline policies and practices disproportionately affect Black students, who are more likely to be suspended or expelled compared to their white peers. Studies have shown that these disciplinary disparities are linked to levels of racial bias, and reflect disproportionate use of such practices on Black students. Black students are then differentially processed for school suspension, law enforcement referrals, and expulsion. This process, with a nod to its tenets of harm and racialized control, is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

A cross-disciplinary team of researchers from the University of Denver and practitioners from Denver Public Schools worked together to better understand how racial disparities in school discipline played out in Denver, Colorado. They wanted to know why racial gaps in discipline persisted, despite policy reforms that lowered suspension and expulsion rates by almost forty percent in Denver Public Schools. Specifically, the researchers sought to answer two questions: does race independently contribute to students’ risk of office discipline referrals, suspensions, law enforcement referrals, and/or expulsions; and do behavior contracts, in-school suspension, and restorative approaches protect students from out-of-school suspension and expulsion?

Methods and Findings

The researchers found that, indeed, Black, Latino and multiracial students were punished more harshly than white students for the same offenses, and that restorative approaches aimed at repairing harm, such as group dialogue and conflict mediation, reduce the likelihood of students receiving out-of-school suspension and expulsion.

Sampling over 87,000 Denver Public Schools students in Kindergarten through 12th Grade during the 2011-12 academic school year, the researchers investigated the relationship between factors that might lead to office referrals, suspensions, law enforcement referrals, and expulsion; and factors that might protect students from exclusionary disciplinary action. They found:

In office disciplinary referrals

  • Latino, Black, Native American, and multiracial students had significantly higher odds of receiving office referrals compared to white students.
  • Boys, students eligible for free and reduced lunch, homeless students, students in special education, and students with serious emotional disabilities all had significantly higher odds of receiving an office referral.
  • Office referrals, or adults perceptions of students misbehavior, was the strongest predictor of exclusionary disciplinary sanctions

In out-of-school suspensions

  • Only Black and multiracial students had significantly higher odds of suspension compared to white students.
  • Boys, students in special education, students with serious emotional disabilities, students placed on behavior contracts, and students referred to law enforcement had significantly higher odds of suspension.
  • Compared to students with non-serious discipline referrals (i.e., damaging school property), students with serious discipline referrals (i.e., third degree assault) had higher odds of being suspended.

In law enforcement referrals

  • Black and Latino students had significantly greater odds of police involvement in their disciplinary incidents, regardless of the seriousness of their behavior.

In expulsions

  • Students in middle school, and students involved in serious incidents such as first degree assault or possession of a dangerous weapon, had increased odds of being expelled.

Related to protective factors 

  • Students who participated in restorative approaches to deal with their actions or received in-school suspension had lower odds of out-of-school suspension.

On the role of district-level policy

  • Because students’ risk of suspension, law enforcement referral, and expulsion increased as the severity of their actions did, it suggests that a grid or list of offenses, consequences, and interventions can have a positive influence on disciplinary school practices compared to zero tolerance policies which punish students harshly regardless of offence and have been shown to be less effective.


Students of color are often punished more harshly in school than white students for the same behavior. To eliminate racial disparities in school discipline, the authors call for the design, testing, and implementation of preventive interventions that target the root cause of the disparities: racial bias in teacher and office referrals, and administrator processing. Such bias is rooted in deeply entrenched beliefs and ideologies that frame Black and other historically racially marginalized students as threats. “In light of these findings,” the researchers write, “efforts to reduce the use of exclusionary discipline sanctions in schools should target the attitudes and behaviors of school staff, not only those of students.” They also suggest that restorative practices, such as group dialogue and conflict mediation, are important pathways to repair harm and support students.


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