Recap: “Poverty to Prison Pipeline,” with KU’s Brandon Davis

The school to prison pipeline has been studied and publicly discussed with much vigor in recent years, and rightfully so, as scholars and advocates have done important work exposing the disproportionate and lasting ways in which school policies like zero tolerance negatively affect young Black males. However, in setting up his September 27 presentation at the Kinder Institute, KU Assistant Professor of Law & Society Brandon Davis noted that this research and discourse on school discipline and incarceration tells only part of the story. Specifically, far less work has been done on better understanding the effects of disciplinary sanction on young Black women, a gap in scholarship that Prof. Davis’ research aims to fill.

The baseline statistics on zero tolerance policies—which are used in 94% of public schools and mandate predetermined, highly punitive consequences for students’ violation of certain rules—paint a grim portrait of racial inequality and injustice. Black students account for 30% of zero tolerance-related suspensions despite making up only 17% of the overall public school population, a punishment disparity that also holds true in private schools, as well as when GPA is accounted for. And as schools themselves become more prison-like—Prof. Davis cited how there are more resource officers in New York City public schools than there are police officers in the city of Boston—a stark reality backlights this carceral shift: not only are expulsions and suspensions, the primary stock-in-trade for zero tolerance policies, ineffective; they actually hurt school safety.

Returning to the thrust of his recent research, which looks at the longer-term consequences of disciplinary sanctions on 10th grade students, Prof. Davis introduced its guiding notion of gendered pathways. Unlike their male counterparts, young Black women are not being pushed out of school and into a direct apparatus of social control in the prison system. Or, perhaps put more accurately, while young Black women are far more likely to be suspended or expelled than all other female and all white male students, they are being pushed out of school and into the welfare state, an indirect mechanism of social control and, as Prof. Davis described it, its own form of penal state with its own form of racial disparities. All this, he added, in spite of the fact that young Black women have been found to have higher educational aspirations than young white women.

Where does this research leave us? For one, it leaves us with a better, more comprehensive understanding of the generational havoc wreaked by policies like zero tolerance and a clear idea of what aren’t solutions: suspensions, expulsions, which leave re-entering students three grade levels behind on average, and police presence in schools. Moreover, it directs us toward subsequent questions—how, for example, do these policies impact other racial minorities?—as well as toward root causes, like implicit bias and cultural miscommunication among a majority-white teacher workforce, that if properly addressed, might help us begin both to bridge punishment disparity gaps and to reverse their cascading effects.