Criminal Justice Expert Dr. Charles Bell Shares Insights about the “School to Prison Pipeline”

Illustration of school to prison pipeline showing a child of color in a classroom, then in prison.
Illustration of the "School-to-Prison Pipeline" by Edgar Gutierrez

The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the trend amongst school districts to enforce severe discipline policies that push students out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system. Disciplinary policies, specifically zero-tolerance policies are meant to create a safe and comfortable environment for students in schools, but do the exact opposite by criminalizing children. Frequent use of suspensions and expulsions contributes to our high dropout rates across the state of Michigan and the US. According to the ACLU of Michigan, 68 percent of prisoners in the state of Michigan are identified as high school dropouts. Although these practices affect all students, black students make up a disproportionate amount of students who are disciplined harshly in schools.

Dr. Charles Bell’s book, Suspended: Punishment, Violence, and the Failure of School Safety, which examined the school year of 2015-2016, states that black students made up 15% of the student population across the country, while being 39% of those who received one or more suspensions. School officials have suspended black students four to six times more than their white counterparts.

Dr. Bell is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Illinois State University. His research focuses on understanding students' and parents' perceptions of school punishment, school safety measures, and law enforcement officers. His work has been published in several scholarly outlets such as Urban Education, Children and Youth Services Review, Journal of Crime and Justice, etc. Dr. Bell’s book, Suspended: Punishment, Violence, and the Failure of School Safety has been selected as a finalist for the 2021 C. Wright Mills Book Award by The Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP). Dr. Bell has also been interviewed and cited by several news outlets such as Lakeshore PBS, The 21st (NPR), Atlanta Black Star, Detroit News, WMBD Central Illinois, WDET Detroit (NPR), Aljazeera America, and more.

IM: Tell me a little bit about yourself and the work that you do.

Dr. Charles Bell: [I’m] a criminal justice professor at Illinois State. My work focuses on understanding how black students and parents view school punishment, school safety management, and law enforcement officers. My current project has shifted and expanded beyond school suspensions, I'm working on seclusion and restraint issues right now, and how they impact black and white families of students with disabilities. I'm from the Detroit area. I'm a graduate of Wayne State, two times bachelor's and PhD, and I went to Michigan State for my master's degree in School Psychology. I have a master's in School Psychology, my Bachelor's degrees in psychology, and my PhD is in sociology and here I am teaching criminal justice. That just gives me a very sort of unique and interdisciplinary perspective on these issues. I think what really makes my work somewhat unique is- the field of school-to-prison pipeline began in 1975, the very first publications that documented the school to prison pipeline in 1974, by the Children's Defense Fund, and between 1974 and 2010, most of that work has been quantitative. There's very little work on qualitative understanding, going into the communities of the people who are impacted and interviewing them. In School Psychology we learned a lot about within child- very rigorous analysis of a child's life, how the child sees the world, and combining that with sociology, which is a very broad sort of macro level perspective of how the world sees the child, and combining the two to really understand and show that these children want to go to school, they want to learn, they want to be successful. Yet the world sees something different when they look at these children.

IM: What is your view on the phrase “school to prison pipeline” and what it refers to?

Dr. Bell: I think that the people who came up with this term [school-to-prison pipeline], see a pipeline in which students enter school, and then school criminalizes their behavior. Increasingly, what we see is schools become a carceral space in which you have all these criminal justice elements. Much like a prison, you have guards and law enforcement officers, and you have even a building mimicking a prison with bars and wired gates around to protect the school. Not only does the school begin to look like a prison, it gets to feel like a prison.

Then you have this funneling of students where they get suspended for a few days, when they come back into the class, it's difficult for them to catch up, then they drop out, or they get another suspension and other suspension and eventually they just fall too far behind. They stopped coming to class and they are in the streets at a time where they should be in school. But they can't go to school because of the suspensions. So they get caught stealing. A lot of times kids eat their breakfast and lunch at school. So if they have no food, then how do they survive outside of school? Sometimes it could be stealing a bag of chips or juice in the morning to survive, and then they get arrested.

IM: Why should people who may not directly be affected care about this issue?

Dr. Bell: In this country, education means everything to a child's well being, it means everything for society. For every dollar that we invest in education, we usually recoup about $7, eventually, because of tax dollars, and when that student goes on into the workforce, they're able to pay taxes, they are able to go out and become a productive member of society. When we invest in their educational resources and they go to prison, that person gives us nothing back to society. That person is continually taking money, essentially, we continually spend money on incarceration. It usually costs us about 30 or 40,000 dollars per inmate, depending on where you are in the country to incarcerate someone per year, and just think about how much money we've spent on their K through 12 education, then we take them and put them in prison.

We're spending $30,000 per year, $40,000 per year, when you consider how much it costs to incarcerate someone over a four year period $40,000 times four, it's $160,000. Then you consider why a lot of people in the first place are incarcerated, it's usually because they're poor [or] have poor education. It's usually because they're in these very sort of criminal life schools. If we could have taken that child, and taken that same $160,000, we could have put them in private school for 12 years, and had money left over for college, and that person would never have gone to prison in the first place in most cases. It just seems like we are deeply misspending our resources, and this affects everyone. We all are taxpayers. When we think of where our money could go, that money could go to positive things, and we just seem so deeply invested on spending that money on incarcerating people.

IM: Your book, Suspended: Punishment, Violence, and the Failure of School Safety sheds light on the harsh realities of disciplinary policies, such as suspensions, in schools being detrimental to black youth. Could you tell me more about the truths you expose in your book about this and what your book offers as ways to address those truths?

Dr. Bell: My book addresses these myths, and I humanize the students. I think that's one important thing that my work does, is oftentimes when we hear the term suspension, we automatically assume that the student did something bad. This is an awful student. When you get to know the students, and you interview them, a lot of these students actually didn't do anything wrong. It's just because how society perceives children, when you are perceived as a criminal on site- because of the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination that has occurred in this country- a lot of these children never had an opportunity to speak. They were accused of something. They were punished immediately without having a voice. They were denied access to a hearing, which is illegal in most cases. They were punished without ever being able to present evidence to refute the claim or determine their innocence or guilt. They were guilty and charged immediately. That is a serious problem. We would never allow that to happen in mainstream society. If you are arrested, you have to have a trial before you can be placed in prison. That's one of the things that we've talked about in our mainstream society- we have people in jails right now that have never had a trial. So why are we subjecting them to this harsh environment before they have a trial? What do you expect to come out of it? We know that jails are violent places of poor nutrition. So why are we putting people there?

A very similar process in schools- if you're punishing kids before they have an opportunity to give their perception of the issue or even speak, then what good could come of that? Other things, illegal suspensions. So what I found is that in poor urban areas, many school officials feel that students don't know the law. And because students don't have a law, they have no right to a hearing, they have no right to have their parents and attorneys present or advocates present. And the schools, they sort of just violate all of the students civil rights, they violate all of their Michigan Department of Education Rights, federal rights given by students who have individualized education plans and things of that nature. And you should have a hearing here and many of these students don't have it. So I think that challenging the notion that every suspension is fair and equitable, and actually legal, is an important aspect of my work as well.

I think a lot of times, and in chapter two, I talk about a dilemma that students encounter in terms of fighting. So we know that considerably, at least 1/3 of suspensions, in most cases, are due to fighting. I talked to students and I showed teachers and readers a dilemma at the point in which a student threatens or tries to attack you, the student has three options. They can either fight back and defend themselves, but the students who have fought back and defended themselves, we know that defending ourselves is criminalized, so you get punished for that. And then you get attacked even more, because the students told me that the students in their school that have high levels of popularity and respect, once they see you get a suspension for fighting, they perceive you as tough, they already believe that they're tough. So now they want to challenge your toughness. That's one option, that's not good. You can not fight back and get beat up. And of course, if you get beat up and the whole school is watching, you lose, then you have visible bruises on your face, you're hurt. In most cases, you get suspended too because the suspensions are zero tolerance policies, so it doesn't matter if you're the victim or the offender, you both get suspended. Then the whole school sees you can't fight. So now you get targeted even more by the entire school. Or three, you can inform a school member or a teacher, but students view that as the ultimate expression of fear and weakness in the attack even more, because they know that you're afraid to stand up for yourself. At the point in which a student is threatened or attacked, it's just lose, lose, lose, there's no good options for these students. And I don't think school officials really appreciate that. Pointing out that maybe we should do some deeper diving into who's the victim and who's the offender before we start issuing punishments. We should consider the fact that a lot of these students if they don't fight back, they could actually suffer some serious harm if they don't. Several students- I talked about this in my book, they've died in school fights, because there were no adults around. These students are either fighting in the bathroom or the back of the school. By the time that guard gets there, it's too late. They've died because of this kind of stuff. So it's really serious. Or they've committed suicide because they were being bullied and no one helped. I think that we need to really listen to the students and hear what they have to say. To my knowledge, I'm not familiar with any work that has truly appreciated students' experiences with school fights and violence in a school setting. So I think that's what my work really does.

I have also talked about structurally violent institutions in schools. So schools that because of their infrastructure in the way that they're designed, they harm students. Quantitatively, we know that school suspension is harming students' grades, but we had no qualitative research to really show how that process unfolds. What I found overwhelmingly is that because of educators' resistance to giving students their makeup work- educators saw students who receive suspensions, and they use their discretion to deny students access to their makeup work. You're suspended, you don't care about school, you don't really want to be here. We're not going to give you any makeup work because you don't really want it anyway. These students, they do want their makeup work and the parents wanted to get it and they couldn't get it either. It just shows you how the small functions of some of these schools were actually harming black children's academic trajectory.

IM: You have interviewed countless black high school students in Detroit. Could you share their perspective on this issue and what you’ve learned from them?

Dr. Bell: A lot of the time they told me that I was denied the opportunity to speak. I was denied the opportunity to speak. I wanted to tell my side of the story, but school officials wouldn't give me an opportunity to speak. As soon as I was accused of something, I was given a slip and was told to leave. Some students were suspended illegally, and they did not have a hearing and they did not have a return date. When you kick a student out of school, and it's 11 in the morning, their parent is at work. A lot of times parents have lost their jobs because the child was suspended and they had to leave their job to get their child from school. Are we seriously considering the long term and sort of severe consequences that are associated with the school punishments outside of school? I don't think we are.

The students have also said that the school guards are handling very rough- throwing students around the classroom being very aggressive. We've seen this play out on television with several school guards body [slamming] kids and aggressively [manhandling] them. It just creates a very volatile environment in the school. It begs the question, who will want to be in this kind of environment? As I reveal what school is really like for these children, I think that most adults who read the book would say I wouldn't want to be here either. I wouldn't feel comfortable in the school. We have to question how we expect students to learn in this environment if they don't feel safe and don't feel like they're being heard.

IM: In your research you have also interviewed the parents and teachers of these black high school students. What have they shared from their perspective about these disciplinary policies and how that affects them?

Dr. Bell: Parents have lost their jobs, parents who've advocated for their children, stress levels through the roof. Navigating this process, many parents tried to advocate for the children and meet with teachers to get to the bottom of this issue. And they could not do it because the school was so aggressive with parents [that] many parents felt like they had no choice but to pack up and leave the district. A lot of times it costs a lot of money to find a new place to live and completely change your route to work. It's tough for a lot of parents. What was really enlightening [and] is a unique aspect of the book, a lot of times the teachers didn't appreciate the difficulties that students were navigating until their child entered the school district. Then they realized, I'm a teacher, and my son can't get the makeup work. This is ridiculous. Now they realize how these policies are harming children when it becomes one of their own.

IM: How are black students specifically targeted by the school-to-prison pipeline?

Dr. Bell: A lot of the students that I interviewed told me they were targeted because of their hair, dreadlocks, and Afro hairstyles on their style of dress. Middle class students told me they were targeted because they had expensive shoes or expensive clothes. Other students told me the teachers targeted students who listened to rap music. They felt teachers had established a profile of students that they wanted to target and they created labels to label those students as bad students and remove them from schools.

IM: Earlier on in the interview, you mentioned your current project in regard to children with disabilities, could you tell me more about what that project entails?

Dr. Bell: I've interviewed parents and parents of black and white children with disabilities to understand how seclusion and restraint impacts their trajectories and I've talked to students in seclusion- pretty much they've placed these students in rooms and they're supposed to have padding around it, and they mimic solitary confinement in prisons. But they're supposed to use this as a countdown room. What I've learned and others have learned is that they put these kids in there for hours at a time. It's traumatizing for the child, they're kicking, screaming, crying. They want out and school officials are sort of blocking the doors. In other classes and other schools, they don't have an official seclusion room that has the padding around the room, and the padding is there because these students have disabilities, so they can’t hit their heads on the wall, and things like that, and you don't want them to get injured. In the school that doesn't have an official seclusion room, they’re throwing these kids in closets. These closets have handles on the door- I've heard several students have hit their heads on the handle, they've broken their noses on the handle, and some of the seclusion rooms are full of blood. It is just awful what I'm learning about this. The stress level of parents are through the roof. In many respects, they have challenged the school in many court cases, and they've lost. It really just seems like there's very little political oversight over schools and I'm arguing that there should be a lot more politicians who should be far more active in protecting children's lives and protecting children's safety than they are.

IM: Do you think that this is the case because there is a lack of mental health resources and professionals in schools?

Dr. Bell: I think that's what's interesting about this project, because I interviewed students who were in low socioeconomic backgrounds, middle class, and I have a very sizable population of affluent parents as well. What you see is even affluent parents where they have the resources and they have the psychologists, sometimes it's the school psychologist that's putting these kids in the seclusion room and leaving them there, which is even more awful because you think a school psychologist would know better than to do this. It really just shows you how schools operate as structurally valid institutions for all vulnerable students. It doesn't matter if it's racial vulnerability or a disability that plays a role here, it just really shows you that schools are very sort of rigid institutions. They favor particular students, particularly white male students. If you don't fit that mode, you're looked at with scrutiny in some cases and weeded out.”

IM: What policies do you believe should be put in place that would dismantle the school to prison pipeline? What are other possible solutions to this issue that you propose?

Dr. Bell: “I actually put a few recommendations in chapter six of my book. I think that we should be mandating that children get their makeup work after a suspension. There should be no reason why a teacher can legally deny you access to your makeup work.

I think that data transparency is important as well. I've actually pitched a bill to several state representatives. This bill is actually in [a series of Senate bills]. What we have in Michigan is that there's no transparency data. So if you wanted to actually find out how many suspensions were issued in a particular school district, you really can't unless you go and collect the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and a school can charge you an extremely exorbitant amount of money [for]. That should not be the case. If you are paying taxes in Michigan, in this data it's everybody, then there should be access to it for free.

IM: What are some challenges you’ve come across while trying to conduct your research on this issue?

Dr. Bell: Schools have no incentive to allow you to interview students or teachers because they don't want you to find this information out. So, I had to recruit students at community organizations, churches, and through parent advocates and like the PTAs. Schools don't want you anywhere near them once this information comes out.

Charles Bell book, “Suspended: Punishment, Violence, and the Failure of School Safety,” is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.