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This story is part of our news archives, prior to July 2010.

pritchardSchools to Prison

If a student takes a pocketknife to a school with a zero tolerance policy, he or she may be expelled. Does that make schools safer—or just make it easier for that student to commit crimes?


Students studied the effects of a zero tolerance policy as part of the junior year civic engagement course with Professor Karin Aguilar-San and did an internship.

Students interned with a variety of relevant organizations such as Amicus and the Council on Crime and Justice. Amber Riley ’09 (Little Rock, Arkansas), an American studies major, interned at On Track Learning Center, a program of the St. Paul Public Schools. “On Track Alternative Learning Center provides a program for 50 to 60 eighth grade students that need to gain enough credits to move on to the ninth grade,” says Riley. A student who lags behind in reading and math is at risk for a lifetime of poverty and illiteracy. “These are the very students that often fall victim to the schools-to-prison pipeline, so I wanted to see them outside the “at risk” label. How were they just children trying to navigate life?”

As part of their coursework, Riley and the other students read and wrote about the contemporary scholarship on resegregation in schools, the No Child Left Behind Act, the prison industry, zero tolerance policies, incarceration trends, and connections between schools and prisons. “I learned the many ways that corporations have privatized prisons and what that means for the production of items such as dorm furniture, school lockers, lingerie, etc. Prisoners are heavily exploited for their labor, getting little to no compensation for it.”

The internship aspect was demanding, both for Aguilar-San Juan to arrange and for the students to work in. “It was a difficult sell to get organizations that usually work with master’s degree students in social work or criminal justice to take on undergrads. On other hand, our students weren’t already ‘house blind,’ that is, anesthetized to the whole situation. I was sending them into an intense set of experiences, and I had to prepare them and walk them through it.”

“We are all required to go to a school, a place that is supposed to provide us with a plethora of positive and safe learning experiences and interactions with caring adults and authority figures,” says Riley. “Who wants to imagine that schools may be setting our children up for incarceration?”