Trauma-to-Prison Pipeline: How Schools Are Reinforcing the Cycle of Mass Incarceration

Imagine this: your child goes to school, maybe they’re having a bad day and out of frustration talk back to a teacher, who sends them to the principal’s office where they’re suspended for three days. They become angry and get into a fight. Instead of another suspension, your child enters the juvenile justice system, drops out of school, and falls into a cycle of incarceration.

For many students, this is a reality. An episode of “acting out” as a child can lead to suspension, and eventually down a path of captivity. Students who are suspended more likely to encounter justice system involvement and are at a higher risk of  academic failure and dropping out of school altogether.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on race in Virginia public schools. However, during 2014-15, African American students were 3.6 times more likely than white students to be suspended. Additionally, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibit discrimination based on disability in Virginia public schools, yet in 2014-15, students with disabilities were 2.4 times more likely than students without disabilities to be suspended.1

Part of the problem? Students of color are disproportionately disciplined for subjective offenses, such as “disrespect”, compared with white students. However, the rates at which African-American and white students “act out” are essentially equal. This disparity among Black and white students may also be a factor in the mass incarceration of Black people; being thrown into cells as juveniles, becoming a part of the criminal legal system, and increasing their chances of being arrested and convicted again in the future.

The US Department of Education suggests around 92,000 students were arrested during the 2011-2012 school year. This number has increased especially due to the use of School Resource Officers (SROs). Instead of being used to ensure the safety of students while in the school setting, more and more SROs are becoming part of the discipline system in schools.

Far too often, the root of the problematic disciplinary behavior is not addressed. What’s triggering the behavior: anxiety? Hunger? Problems at home? Trauma? Harsh disciplinary reactions to youth who are seeking attention and “acting out” may escalate and worsen the situation, creating a cycle of greater student distress and harsher and harsher disciplinary actions.

So how can we stop this cycle and create a new narrative? We can start by taking a lesson from Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore, Maryland which has begun offering their students meditation as a way to address problematic behavior. The Mindful Moment Room encourages students to breathe, meditate, and talk through what happened, allowing the student an opportunity to calm and re-center themselves.

Combined with their after-school program, Holistic Me, which allows students to practice mindfulness and yoga, the elementary school has not had a single suspension since the start of the 2015-2016 school year.

child-meditatesImage source: http://www.publicnewsservice.org/2016-03-10/juvenile-justice/juvenile-justice-reform-group-wants-nd-youth-prisons-closed/a50763-1

Other ideas for change?

  • End suspension for children younger than second grade;
  • No referrals for children under 13 to police for minor offenses;
  • Focus on forming relationships between school staff, giving students an opportunity to resolve problems by talking about them;
  • Schools, not police, deal with students’ nonviolent infractions;
  • Allow opportunities for students to get involved in their communities;
  • Teach students to be co-teachers and let them run sessions such as meditation and yoga

Several bills to address Virginia’s School-to-Prison-Pipeline are currently being considered in the Virginia General Assembly, including the following bills supported by the Action Alliance. Contact your legislator today to ask them support these bills:

  • SB 997 (Sen. Stanley) & HB 1536 (Del. Richard Bell) –Prohibits students in preschool through grade five from being suspended or expelled except for drug offenses, firearm offenses, or certain criminal acts.
  • SB 995 (Sen. Stanley) & HB 1534 (Del. Richard Bell) – Reduces the maximum length of a long-term suspension from 364 calendar days to 45 school days. The bill prohibits a long-term suspension from extending beyond the current grading period unless aggravating circumstances exist and prohibits a long-term suspension from extending beyond the current school year.
  • SB 996 (Sen. Stanley) & HB 1535 (Del. Richard Bell) –Public schools; student discipline. Provides that no student shall receive a long-term suspension or expulsion for disruptive behavior unless such behavior involves intentional physical injury or credible threat of physical injury to another person.

Have more ideas to end the cycle? Make sure to add them in the comments below!


Ki’ara Montgomery is a Senior at Virginia Commonwealth University with plans to graduate in May 2017. She is obtaining a bachelor’s degree in public relations, and minors in business and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. While in school, she has had opportunities with VCU AmeriCorps, Culture4MyKids, VCU School of Education, and the Richmond Raiders. She is currently interning with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance with a focus in development, policy, and communications.

1 “Suspended Progress”, JustChildren Program Legal Aid Justice Center, May 2016. Retrieved 1/10/17 https://www.justice4all.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Suspended-Progress-Report.pdf

Featured image source: http://www.publicnewsservice.org/2016-03-10/juvenile-justice/juvenile-justice-reform-group-wants-nd-youth-prisons-closed/a50763-1

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This article is part of the Action Alliance’s blog series on Virginia’s Trauma-to-Prison-Pipeline.

The Trauma-to-Prison-Pipeline (aka “School-to-Prison-Pipeline”) fails young people who are experiencing high levels of toxic stress and/or trauma by responding in overly punitive ways to youth who exhibit normal reactions to trauma and toxic stress.

Youth of color and youth with disabilities are particularly targeted for disproportionately high levels of heavy-handed, punitive responses to vague and subjective infractions in school, such as “defiance of authority”, or “classroom disruption”. Viewed from a trauma-informed lens, these same behaviors may signal youth who are suffering and struggling with ongoing effects of trauma.

 The Action Alliance believes that everyone deserves racially equitable responses that are compassionate and trauma-informed, and which build individual and community assets.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335. 

“Rightful Owners of Equal Rights?”

“I’m not homophobic but…” statements typically end with a clause that is actually homophobic [editor’s note: or transphobic]. Such was the widespread reaction to the start of the repeal of House Bill 2 or “HB2”. Also known as the “Bathroom Bill,” HB2 is a bill that prohibits people from using public bathrooms that don’t correspond to their sex as listed on their birth certificates, reversing a Charlotte ordinance that had extended some rights to people who are transgender. [editor’s note: homophobia is about hostility toward same sex relationships and/or behaviors; transphobia is a hostility toward behaving in a way that does not fit with socially accepted gender norms.]

HB2 passed in March of 2016. Since then, a number of businesses and individuals have chosen to boycott North Carolina due to the bill’s discriminatory nature. Two prominent corporations which made steps to keep their business ventures outside of the state were the NBA, which moved its all-star game from Charlotte, North Carolina to New Orleans, and PayPal, which cancelled the construction of a new center in Charlotte.

hb2Image Credit: citizen-times.com

While protests of the bill continued in the months following its passing, it wasn’t until recently that lawmakers called for action concerning the bill. On December 19, 2016, it was announced that outgoing North Carolina Governor, Pat McCrory, would be calling for a “special session” to repeal HB2. It was implied that as long as Charlotte overturned its anti-discrimination ordinance,  said to be one of the laws that prompted HB2 to be passed, then HB2 would be repealed.

While many people were in high spirits regarding the seemingly imminent demise of HB2, others were not.When the news about HB2 resurfaced, so did the voices of those against equality for the trans community. The latter made posts that expressed their disapproval by attacking the very same people the bill oppresses. They wrote of being fearful for their children if  transwomen were allowed to use the women’s restroom, claiming that such integration could lead to sexual assault on women and children. In fact, zero cases of sexual assault in a bathroom by a transgender person have been documented.

The reality is that trans people are the ones most at risk in bathrooms, and in the community at large. Transgender people experience violent victimization at significantly higher rates than cisgender people. One TIME News article cited a study from UCLA’s Williams Institute to stress the true stats involving transgender people and their experiences in public restrooms.

“Nearly 70% of transgender people said they had experienced verbal harassment in a situation involving gender-segregated bathrooms, while nearly 10% reported physical assault. And, advocates argue, laws that force transgender people to use restrooms where they can look out of place makes them more likely targets.”

Arguments in favor of HB2 have no logical foundation. Forcing trangender people to use restrooms that don’t match their gender identity only heightens their safety risk. It is essentially choosing to put them in danger for the sake of others’ prejudice.

Nevertheless, with claims based on nothing but prejudice views, people continued to put out homophobic [editor’s note: and transphobic] posts, often with disclaimers they believed made their statements appear less harmful. “I don’t have a problem with LGBTQ people but…” “Everyone can do what they want but…” Some showed their ignorance on the matter by using “gay” and “transgender” interchangeably. “I have gay friends but…” These statements attempt to make those who posted seem open-minded and victimized, all while they oppressed an entire group of people in the same sentence.

hb2-1Image Credit: wspa.com

The repeal of HB2 did not end up taking place during the special session. Instead, legislators passed a bill that would buy them more time. The new bill stated that cities across the state could not, for a period of time, alter or create any anti-discrimination ordinances. This was just an added blow to the fact that lawmakers did not hold up their end of the bargain to repeal HB2 following Charlotte’s repeal of its anti-discrimination ordinance.

hb2-2Image Credit: charlotteobserver.com

“‘This wasn’t the deal,’ said Sen. Jeff Jackson, who argued that Charlotte officials had acted in good faith in overturning its ordinance before the special session. ‘This bill breaks that deal.’”

While it was a disappointing blow for equal rights, the General Assembly will beconvening again on January 11, at which time the repeal of HB2 may again be a topic of discussion. Until then, the fight for LGBTQ rights will continue, in particular, the fight for the rights of people in the trans community.

In Virginia, a bill similar to HB2 has been introduced this session by Del. Bob Marshall. If you’d like to let your legislators know what you think of  Marshall’s bill, HB1612, you can find your legislator here.


Terms used

Transgender: An umbrella term that encompasses a wide range of people whose gender identity or expression may not match the sex they were assigned at birth. (Source: Forge)

Cisgender: A term used to describe an individual whose self-perception of their gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth (Source: AVP)

Gender Identity: A term that describes how a person identifies their gender. A person’s gender identity may be different than social norms and/or stereotypes of the sex they were assigned at birth. There are a wide range of gender identities and expressions, including identifying as a man, woman, transgender, genderqueer, and/or identifying as gender non-conforming (Source: AVP)


Dominique Colbert is a Hotline Crisis Services Specialist at the Action Alliance as well as an Intern for the Real Story journalism internship. She graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University with a B.S. in Mass Communications and a B.A. in African American Studies. She is an aspiring filmmaker and loves to create as well as watch others’ creations on the big screen.

The Real Story Internship analyzes and rewrites news stories to reflect a trauma-informed, survivor-centered and racial justice lens.


Joining the Action Alliance adds your voice to making change in Virginia. Start your membership today or call 804.377.0335.