Mental Health and the School-to-Prison Pipeline
Written by Hannah Martinez

Throughout decades, it has become clear that the public school system has morphed into a one-way ticket to prison for many marginalized students, most particularly Black students and non-Black students of color.

This notorious ticket--known today as the school-to-prison pipeline--has its roots in the classroom, where statistics show that despite no genuine differences in behavior, Black children are penalized much more frequently for disruption and disobedience in school than their white classmates. In fact, Black students are four times more likely to receive suspensions than whites, and Black girls are ten times more likely to receive discipline referrals. Add into the mix the criminalization and sexualization of Black children and schools are left with underserved and unfairly targeted Black youth who fall behind in school as they are increasingly disciplined undeservingly. Studies have shown how “adultification bias”--that is, Black youth being treated as more mature and not in need of protecting--negatively affects the futures of Black children. In 2017, researchers found that black girls as young as five years old were seen as less innocent and more aggressive than their white peers, despite being, well, five years old. When the researchers looked into potential disparities between different age groups, they found that the widest gap was in the 10-14-year-old age group, with teachers and authority figures having the most negative views on Black girls than white females.

In fact, the school-to-prison pipeline has become so glaringly obvious that states use illiteracy data rates to predict how many new jail cells will need to be built in the future.

Unsurprisingly, these actions disproportionately affect an even more marginalized group within the Black community: Black children who have mental illnesses or disorders. These children will usually go undiagnosed, especially in schools where it is more often to find school “resource officers”--code for school police-- instead of trained, secure, and readily available guidance counselors and psychologists. In instances where these children act out on account of their mental health issues, they are no given leeway with administrations and instead are shown the door with “zero-tolerance” policies that are unfortunately becoming increasingly popular amid the United States. Despite the zero-tolerance goal of deterring bad behavior, preventing continuous violation, and removing disruptions, these policies have only increased the number of mentally ill Black children led on that dangerous one-way ticket down the school-to-prison pipeline. When zero-tolerance policies are implemented and these children are suspended or expelled from schools due to behavior that they cannot control or is the only way they can get attention, they immediately become at risk of incarceration for the rest of their life.

Black children, especially those with untreated mental illnesses or disorders, deserve better from public schools that are supposed to be giving them the education they need to thrive in society, not send them down a path to incarceration. The school-to-prison pipeline can be fixed by replacing school resource officers with trained and adequate guidance counselors and psychologists who can give Black children the support, strength, and safety they need to excel in school; by replacing defunded school budgets with money to replenish decades-old textbooks and shadows of arts, music, and culture programs; and immediate, thorough, and impactful anti-bias training for teachers, administrators, and other school authorities to ensure that studies will never again suggest that Black children are treated differently than white children for the exact same behavior.

Mental illness, especially untreated mental illness, in Black children should never be a factor in determining whether a child is doomed to a future in prison. It is imperative that the school-to-prison pipeline be taken down immediately to ensure the safety, survival, and strength of America’s Black youth for generations to come.