The School-to-Prison Pipeline

18973554523_a86af716c6_kThe school-to-prison pipeline is a term used by scholars, activists and media to describe the phenomenon of public schools embracing practices that push students directly into the criminal justice system.  The issue recently galvanized in public consciousness with the disturbing video of a uniformed officer slamming a student to the ground for allegedly refusing to get off her phone.  Part of the problem clearly demonstrated by this video is that schools increasingly resemble prisons complete with uniformed officers keeping the students in check.

A Sudbury school disrupts the school-to-prison pipeline at the source by empowering students to govern themselves rather than imposing law and order on them from the outside.  Students learn that the freedom they enjoy at a Sudbury school is only possible because they are responsible for maintaining it.  With great freedom comes great responsibility.

How would that event be handled at a Sudbury school?  Very, very differently.  First of all it is highly unlikely that any Sudbury school anywhere would ban phones so using one wouldn’t be a problem to begin with.  A staff member at a Sudbury school in New York recounts the immediate and furious backlash he received when he proposed banning smart phones and tablets.  The important point is that a Sudbury school is refreshingly free from many of the rules required in a standard school environment which form the bulk of the minor infractions that critics say send students on the pipeline to prison.

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that a student was talking loudly on their phone in a designated quiet zone at a Sudbury school.  What then?

Assuming it could not be handled amicably, someone – another student or staff member – could file a complaint with the Judicial Committee.  The Judicial Committee at a Sudbury school is composed of a rotating panel of randomly selected students and staff members who are empowered to investigate and adjudicate alleged violations of school rules and decide punishments.  No individual staff member has the authority to order a student to do something or issue a punishment.  All enforcement and punishment authority resides with the students and the staff members themselves through the Judicial Committee.

A Sudbury school is free from capricious rules, arbitrary enforcement and disproportionate punishment precisely because the students and staff are vested with these powers.  Criticism is directed inward and students are treated as the unique individuals that they are.  This combination of empowerment and responsibility puts Sudbury students on the pipeline to success.


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