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Hillary Clinton's plan to undo the school-to-prison pipeline, explained

Hillary Clinton meets with civil rights leaders in New York City.
Hillary Clinton meets with civil rights leaders in New York City.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

In Harlem earlier this year, Hillary Clinton unveiled a plan to undo one of the biggest problems in America's criminal justice system.

The new $2 billion plan, which goes after the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline," would incentivize the hiring of "school climate support teams" — made up of social workers, behavioral health specialists, and education practitioners — to work with school staff to reorient and develop comprehensive reform plans for school discipline policies.

Specifically, reform plans should try to establish "early warning systems" to identify and help at-risk students and provide training to school staff on conflict deescalation and other ways to defuse a situation without resorting to harsh discipline measures, according to Clinton's campaign.

Clinton's staff said Clinton acknowledges that students who commit violent offenses should be removed from the classroom. But she also believes such incidents are very rare (they are), and that the rush to handle school discipline through the criminal justice system does more harm than good.

The proposal is part of a much broader plan — what Clinton's campaign calls the "Breaking Down Barriers" agenda — which would direct $20 billion to youth jobs, $5 billion to reentry programs for formerly incarcerated people, and $25 billion to support entrepreneurship and small business growth in underserved communities.

But the proposal to tackle the school-to-prison pipeline in particular, while somewhat vague, is the latest major salvo against a system that has gotten more attention over the past several years as the Black Lives Matter movement protests the massive racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

The school-to-prison pipeline, explained

When lawmakers and politicians — including Clinton — began calling for and enacting tough-on-crime policies in the 1970s through '90s, some of the concepts trickled down to schools, which began outsourcing discipline to police through school resource officers and referrals to the juvenile justice system.

The result has been a school-to-prison pipeline that acts as many kids' first exposure to the criminal justice system — and it can lead to more interactions with the justice system later on, because the lost school time and bad marks on their records can make it much more difficult to get ahead.

Many Americans saw the problems with the system firsthand via a viral video of a brutal encounter between a school resource officer and a black student at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina. The video showed the officer, Ben Fields, tossing the student across the room and arresting her after she allegedly caused a disturbance in class — in what many people saw as an extreme overreaction.

But there's also a lot of research and data that shows black kids are much more likely to be affected by schools' punitive disciplinary policies:

A report from the Justice Policy Institute found schools with school resource officers had nearly five times the rate of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without school resource officers, even though the prevalence of school resource officers in Justice Policy Institute
  • Even after controlling for poverty, a report from the Justice Policy Institute found schools with school resource officers have nearly five times the rate of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without school resource officers, even though the prevalence of school resource officers in schools has little relationship to reported crime rates.
  • A study published in Sociology of Education analyzed a data set of more than 60,000 schools in more than 6,000 districts. It found schools with relatively larger minority and poor populations are more likely to implement criminalized disciplinary policies — such as suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, and arrests — and less likely to medicalize students by, for instance, connecting them to psychological or behavioral care.
  • Boys with imprisoned fathers are much less likely to possess the behavioral skills needed to succeed in school by the age of 5, a study published in Sociological Science found. Black children, who are more likely to have imprisoned fathers, are therefore more likely to be set on a bad course before they start kindergarten.
Black students face enormous disparities in school discipline. Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies
  • Black students with disabilities are almost three times as likely to experience out-of-school suspension or expulsion as their white counterparts, and twice as likely to experience in-school suspension or expulsion, according to a report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
  • Although black boys face higher rates of school discipline than anyone else, a report from the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies found black girls are six times as likely to be suspended compared with white girls, while black boys are three times as likely to be suspended compared with white boys.
  • Federal investigations have found that black students are punished more harshly than white students in schools even when black and white students engage in identical behavior.

So schools aren't just more likely to criminalize their students nowadays; they're more likely to criminalize their black students in particular.

With her latest proposal, Clinton is trying to help take apart the system that enabled this disparity — providing, in some ways, atonement for the tough-on-crime policies she herself backed over the past few decades.

But she is also looking toward her political future: The states that already voted in the Democratic primary elections — Iowa and New Hampshire — were predominantly white. The next few states will be far more diverse, and Clinton's campaign hopes she will perform much better in these diverse states than she did in Iowa, where she effectively tied with Sanders, and New Hampshire, where she lost. One way to do that, her campaign believes, is by shoring up support from black Americans, many of whom have experienced the unfairness of the system firsthand.