‘Breaking the Chains’ Report by EJS Provides Insight into How Implicit Bias and Racial Trauma Fuel the School-to-Prison Pipeline


A new report by the Equal Justice Society describes how implicit bias and racial trauma enable the school-to-prison pipeline that betrays thousands of children in our country by criminalizing them instead of providing them with supportive and inclusive school environments.

This report was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced by a team of contributors, including: Zabrina Aleguire, Anna Basallaje, Christopher Bridges, Kyle Kate Dudley, Allison Elgart, Eva Paterson, Jasleen Singh, Ali Stack, Breanna Williams, and Itir Yakar.

The executive summary and complete report is available at http://equaljusticesociety.org/breakingthechains.

The U.S. incarcerates more of its children than any other country in the world. The school-to-prison pipeline is a key component of this system that imprisons roughly 70,000 children per year.

Increasingly, harsh school discipline policies that start with suspension or expulsion of students lead to a downward spiral into the criminal justice system. Students removed from the school environment fall behind academically, are at higher risk of getting in trouble, feel stigmatized when they return to school, and are more likely to drop out, never obtaining high school diplomas.

This correlation between overly harsh school discipline, drop-out rates, and the juvenile justice system creates the gateway to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Strikingly, those most impacted by harsh school discipline policies are the children who need the most support. Students of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQ youth, and trauma-affected children are disproportionately impacted by highly subjective school discipline practices.

Many factors play into the disproportionate suspension or expulsion of these vulnerable students and their eventual path to the criminal justice system. Among these factors are the lack of teacher training and support, the increased placement of police officers at schools, the consequent application of law enforcement tactics on students, implicit bias, the use of broad discretion in school discipline, racial anxiety and trauma, and lack of diversity and cultural sensitivity among teachers and administrators.

The Role of Implicit Bias in the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Implicit bias is perhaps the most complex aspect of the school-to-prison pipeline. The implicit biases of teachers, administrators, classified staff, school police, and school officials are key instigating factors in treating youth of color more harshly than their counterparts.

If teachers, administrators, and school police officers are acting on their implicit biases, they may not be conscious of their negative reactions toward certain students. Because of a lack of self-awareness of these biases, administrators and officers may consider their actions justified, and may not question how their unconscious belief system influenced their reaction to a situation.

Implicit bias manifests most visibly when educators have discretion over the type of disciplinary action they impose. This discretionary discipline leaves room for variation based on subjective perception of students and thus has noticeably disproportionate effects on students of color.

Implicit biases and disproportionate disciplinary action harm students of color, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities. Their in-school experience may be compounded by chronic trauma, racial trauma, racial anxiety, and stereotype threat.

When teachers, school administrators, and security personnel are unaware of the effects of trauma on schoolchildren, they may respond with overly-harsh discipline—suspension, expulsion, and even violence. Such disproportionate response in turn increases the likelihood of drop-out rates and exposure to the criminal justice system, and continues a potentially lifelong cycle of trauma.

Action Plan to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Tackling a phenomenon as entrenched as the school-to-prison pipeline requires a multi-pronged approach. A fundamental shift in discipline philosophies is crucial.

  • Instead of treating our children like criminals, we should adopt positive interventions and institute supportive approaches such as restorative discipline.
  • We should focus on strengthening student-teacher relationships and trust, while prioritizing an inclusive and equitable school climate.
  • We must provide teachers with additional support and training, including training in implicit bias, relevant neuroscience and psychology findings, and trauma-informed strategies.
  • We must also make it a priority to recruit teachers and administrators from diverse backgrounds.
  • We must hold school districts accountable through data collection and reporting.
  • Finally, we must eliminate zero-tolerance discipline policies and discretionary discipline.

We cannot become discouraged to the point of inaction. Though implicit biases run rampant in our education systems and disproportionate discipline is devastating, we can alter this trajectory right now. The first step is to look at each student as a person with individualized learning needs who can contribute to their learning and to society as a whole. We can dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline one school, one educator, and one student at a time, if we collectively work to value all students as learning, growing, and deserving individuals, with great potential to contribute meaningfully to our society.

The executive summary and complete report is available at http://equaljusticesociety.org/breakingthechains.

In addition to The California Endowment, the Equal Justice Society would also like to express our deepest appreciation to the following foundations for the general operating support they provide: The Ford Foundation; Open Society Foundations; The San Francisco Foundation; van Löben Sels/RembeRock; and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.



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