R. Hanuna said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because they neglected [the education of] school children. (Talmud, Shabbat 119b)



A ‘school to prison pipeline has developed in many communities. This new terminology refers to recent trends in which, instead of using the usual school administrative processes for minor disciplinary problems, school resource officers, who are often members of a police department, arrest students and place them into the criminal justice system. This sends students down a path that will give them criminal records and make it more difficult for them to get jobs and participate fully in society as adults.


For 100 years Women of Reform Judaism (formerly The National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods) has had a deep concern for the rights of children as expressed through resolutions, statements, and advocacy. As early as 1936 NFTS issued a statement protesting child labor and child abuse. In 1975, 1977, 1979, and 1991 NFTS issued resolutions focusing on the juvenile justice system, education, and the general well-being of children. Resolutions on the criminal justice system in 1971 and 1983 included a call for the “rigorous protection of constitutional and other legal rights” of children. In 1999, WRJ specifically addressed the issue of unequal treatment of minority youth in the criminal justice system in the United States including the threat to basic protections for young people in the criminal justice system (Equal Justice and Equal Protection – 1999).


In the United States, there is now a disciplinary practice within the schools known as a ‘school to prison pipeline. It results from policies and practices that push children, especially those with disabilities and those at risk, from schools into the criminal justice system.[1] Among the causes are overcrowded and understaffed public schools, zero-tolerance policies, the use of school “resource officers” or other police officials to maintain order, and an effort to get low-performing children out of the classrooms. Canada has a similar problem in that at this time a First Nation youth is more likely to end up in jail than to graduate high school.[2]


Many communities have adopted zero-tolerance policies related to weapons and or drugs in schools in response to incidents of school violence and mass murders. While all communities want safe schools, zero-tolerance policies prevent a nuanced approach that examines all of the circumstances surrounding an event in determining penalties. Zero tolerance policies can result in overreactions to some school transgressions. For instance, schools have expelled or given long suspensions to students who bring toy guns to school, bring a knife to school to cut a cake, or bring cough drops or over-the-counter pain medication to school. Once expelled, the children are usually placed in alternative schools. These expulsions leave children at greater risk of falling into the reach of the criminal justice system. “In Chicago, the number of out-of-school suspensions quadrupled to 93.312 between 2001 and 2007. In Texas, more than 128,000 students were pushed out of the school and into alternative schools.[3]


School suspensions should be used less frequently and only when absolutely necessary. “A 2003 study… found that school suspension is a top predictor for those students incarcerated by ninth grade.[4] School suspensions can leave children unsupervised, risking their health and safety. They can require students to repeat a grade, thus making them more likely to drop out of school.[5]


Often overcrowded and understaffed schools have turned in recent years to police departments and private security companies to maintain order in the halls. These schools often serve poor students and students with learning disabilities. These officers are usually not trained specifically in dealing with children, and as a result, they respond to problems as they would to criminal action on the streets. For example, in some school districts, students who yell at a teacher,  who in the past may have been placed in detention, are now charged with disorderly conduct. Also, students who are involved in minor fights, who may in the past have faced short suspensions from school, are now charged with assault. Far too quickly, students find themselves within the juvenile criminal court system. “In Pennsylvania, the number of school-based arrests almost tripled between 1999 and 2006 to 12,918.”[6]


Many schools too often are quick to expel or bring criminal charges on students with behavioral or learning disabilities. In this era of high-stakes testing for schools, it is advantageous for schools to remove students who perform badly and bring the school’s statistics down. This provides an extra incentive for the school to take extreme measures.


Once children start down the road of the criminal justice system it is very hard to find another path. They have criminal records that can follow them for life, making it difficult to get into college and to find jobs. Schools often set up barriers that discourage these students from returning to school. All of this increases the likelihood that the most vulnerable children will be lost from the school systems and end up in prisons instead.




Therefore, Women of Reform Judaism urges members in Canada and the United States to:

  1. Examine the policies of their local school districts and schools, and encourage them to create tolerance policies with disciplinary actions that consider the circumstances surrounding an incident.
  2. Urge school districts, schools, and police departments to require and provide training about children and the appropriate role of discipline in schools to any and all school resource officers and security personnel.
  3. Work to make certain that school districts and schools are not channeling students into the criminal justice system inappropriately.
  4. Study all of the issues around the school-to-prison pipeline including the policies of local prosecutors and juvenile courts to find ways to work with local officials to prevent the pipeline from continuing.
  5. Provide mentoring and tutoring, offer other programs to at-risk children in their local schools, or refer students to appropriate community resources to help interrupt the school to prison pipeline and support local public schools.



[1] ACLU.org “Locating the School-to-prison pipeline” at: http://wrenchproject.com/linked/aclu%20locating%20the%20school-to-prison%20pipeline.pdf. For additional information go to: https://www.aclu.org/school-prison-pipeline.

[2] Assembly of First Nations, Fact Sheet - Quality of Life of First Nations, June 2011, http://www.afn.ca/uploads/files/factsheets/quality_of_life_final_fe.pdf

[3] Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Survey from the Field by Matt Cregor and Damon Hewitt, 20 Poverty and Race, 1 (2011). Available at: http://www.naacpldf.org/files/case_issue/PRRAC%20journal%20Jan_Feb%202011-%20Dismantling_the_School-to-Prison_Pipeline.pdf

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.