Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Understanding the Antecedents of the "School-to-Jail" Link: The Relationship between Race and School Discipline

Academic journal article Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

Understanding the Antecedents of the "School-to-Jail" Link: The Relationship between Race and School Discipline

Article excerpt


By virtually any measure, African-American youth fare worse in school than whites. For example, black students show less interest and effort in school activities than whites and have lower grades. They are more likely to be held back, more likely to be in lower academic tracks, more likely to be in special education, more likely to drop out before graduating, and less likely to go to college. (1) In addition, compared with whites, blacks have higher rates of crime and incarceration as adolescents and young adults. (2) These are not unrelated facts. For example, Lochner and Moretti concluded that "schooling reduces criminal activity," (3) and the connection between black academic failure and crime has been the subject of much research and debate. (4)

Research is increasingly beginning to examine the connections between school failure and later contact with the criminal justice system for minorities. Various explanations for this "school-to-jail" (which some have deemed the "school-to-prison pipeline") trajectory for blacks have been offered. (5) Among these are accounts noting racial differences in socioeconomic background, (6) the family life of black children, including their lack of cultural capital, (7) and the existence of an oppositional subculture and identity among young blacks, wherein academic success is dismissed and ridiculed as being "too white." (8) Another possibility is that the school itself is partially to blame for the academic problems of black students, because it creates a hostile learning environment, which may be formed very early in children's educational lives--in elementary school. In other words, school disengagement and the academic troubles of young blacks could be due to feelings of racial hostility or disparate treatment by teachers, particularly disciplinary treatment, (9) and it is this racial hostility that in part leads students to disengage from school and ultimately find crime more economically attractive than legitimate labor. These explanations would theoretically link school disengagement and later involvement in the criminal justice system by a common theme of hostility toward white authority, which has its origin in the school and the coercive response of the school in reacting to this conflict with punishment. Ferguson has expressed this possibility perhaps most clearly in her account of life inside one West Coast elementary school:

   What I observed at Rosa Parks during more than three years of
   fieldwork in the school, heard from the boy himself and his
   teachers, from his teachers, from his mother, made it clear that
   just as children were tracked into futures as doctors, scientists,
   engineers, word processors, and fast-food workers, there were also
   tracks for some children, predominately African American and male,
   that led to prison. This book tells the story of the making of
   these bad boys, not by members of the criminal justice system on
   street comers, or in shopping malls, or video arcades, but in
   school and by school, through punishment. (10)

Ferguson's thesis in her qualitative work and the thesis of our own work, presented here quantitatively, is that because of a conflict of racial cultures and the existence of stereotypes, black youth are singled out for punishment in school, independent of their actual behavior. While we do not test the entire sequelae in this Article, we argue that this phenomenon is part of what begins the process of school disengagement for minority youth, which ultimately will land them in jail in disproportionate numbers.

Psychological research has indicated that youths are likely to disengage from school and academic pursuits if they perceive negative information about themselves or their racial group within the school environment. Steele, for example, has argued that when students perceive that racial stereotypes are being employed by teachers, they are more likely to perform poorly, which eventually leads them to detach themselves from the educational process. …

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