Stopping the School to Prison Pipeline


For some children in the United States, school is not only a place of learning but can be a point of entry into the criminal justice system. In some schools, even minor breaks from the rules can lead to children’s behavior being criminalized and dealt with by authorities outside of school—sometimes without consideration of what motivated the behavior. Behavioral consequences can include children being removed from school and coming into contact with the juvenile court system/incarceration. This movement is commonly referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Not all children who break school rules are sent on this pipeline in equal measure. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, school disciplinary policies disproportionately affect students of color. Black students are suspended and expelled three times more than White students. Knowing these disparities exist and that the school-to-prison pipeline is a problem, how can the situation improve?

In part, the answer may lie in understanding the root of the problem—why some children are exhibiting certain behaviors in school. Research has shown that adverse life events—like fewer economic resources, child abuse and neglect, exposure to community violence or bullying—have significant effects on mental health, emotion regulation and other skills people need to function well.

Rachel Vaughn-Coaxum, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, says, “Experiences of deprivation of resources are associated with changes in cognitive functioning and development, including language learning, flexible thinking, memory, self-control and time management. Experiences related to threats to well-being are associated with emotion regulation. These experiences are usually seen as disruptions in development. But, it’s important to consider that something that looks atypical in a child’s development might be adaptive. What some people view as a deficit in development may actually be a necessary adaptation to survive in less stable environments.”

Dr. Vaughn-Coaxum says it is important to consider that, in certain environments, the consequences of adversity may put children at much higher risk for difficulties at school. If children are having difficulty regulating their emotions and are more likely, because of their race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, to receive more punitive measures at school, this could put them at risk of becoming part of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Childhood adversity puts children at higher risk for behavioral and mental health issues, including anxiety and depression. Not all children receive the help they need to process adverse life events (research shows that 50% or less of children get the mental health assistance they need– In addition to getting treatment, children also need treatments that work best for them. Dr. Vaughn-Coaxum is currently conducting two* studies** that are looking at the way adverse life experiences influence the way children learn basic coping skills in treatment and examining the effectiveness of certain therapy skills. Research shows that standard treatments for depression do not always work as well in children who have a history of adversity. Dr. Vaughn-Coaxum wants to understand why in order to better target the delivery of helpful coping skills to children who have experienced higher levels of stress and adversity.

Children need to be able to get support for mental health issues, get the treatment that works best for them and there needs to be consideration that some disruptive behaviors emerge from adverse life experiences.

“It’s important to consider in what ways we punish behaviors that may serve to protect children in other environments,” says Dr. Vaughn-Coaxum.

To learn more about Dr. Vaughn-Coaxum’s studies, call 412-526-8667 or email

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