The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Dontadrian Bruce

The problem presented in this paper is the school-to-prison pipeline. The explanation of the problem, a specific case, and a refutation will all be highlighted throughout this paper.

To understand why something is a problem, you must first understand the problem. The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the process of systematically targeting at-risk youths by imposing harsh disciplinary policies (also known as zero tolerance policies) on them within the school system. After these youths are disciplined by the school for the committed infraction, they are often times put before law enforcement for further punishment. Before they realize it, they are completely pushed out of the educational system and into the criminal justice system.

In the book, The School-to-Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform, the “core” of pipeline aspect of this issue is stated as being “the failure of public institutions to meet the educational and social development needs of a large segment of the children they are charged with serving.” Overly-crowded classrooms, socioeconomic and racially isolated environments, lack of constructive teachers, and inadequate funding are just a few faults that have been found to practically “set up students for failure.” In light of this, let’s get statistical and put this into figures. It should be noted that an African American male is the victim in the specific case highlighted in this paper, so I will provide statistics involving African Americans to strengthen my argument.

Looking at the 33 years between 1973 to 2006, the percentage of American American students enrolled in public school who were suspended at least once sometime during the school year rose from 6% to 15%. This percentage has since doubled. Looking at the racial discrepancies, the numbers are worse. 30 years ago, African American males were twice as likely to be suspended as their white peers. Today, they are triple more likely. From 2002 to 2003, the risk of American African males being suspended was almost 18% versus their white peers risk of suspension being only 7% (Kim, Losen and Hewitt, 2010).

Let’s take a quick break from numbers. Looking at this problem from a different angle, this problem may not have affected you. Whether it be because of your race, your socioeconomic status, the area you lived in (though the south is mentioned as a specific area of it occurring, this problem has been known to take place in many different states and regions across the US) or even just because you managed to avoid being target by your school officials. Whatever the case may be, you may have been fortunate enough to not have this problem fall upon you. With that being said, this problem could very easily become your problem if you have children. You see, this problem is rather a timeless one.

Timeless in other words means it’s been a problem for a while now. It’s not quite pressing, and obviously nobody is feverishly working towards a resolution for it. Therefore, as time goes on this problem is likely to continue to be a problem, and as before mentioned, just because it may have skipped you doesn’t mean it won’t be a problem for your children. Would you like your children to have a wrap sheet longer than they are before they’ve even graduated due to relentless targeting of school officials who practically vowed to do the best by them? If the answer to this question is no but you’ve done nothing to look into this problem or to investigate some of your child’s public school policies that don’t really sit well with you, you’re a part of the problem.

Now, let’s transition into getting to know one of many victims of this problem. Dontadrian Bruce is an African American young man: he was 15 years old at the time of this unfortunate event. He attends Olive Branch High, in Olive Branch Mississippi. He was in his biology class on the last day of January in 2014, working on a group project. Once he and his group were finished, the teacher of said class asked Bruce and his fellow classmates to take a group picture with their work. Bruce proceeded to smile and posed for the picture. Bruce’s pose of choice; holding up three fingers. His three fingers of choice were his thumb, pointer finger, and middle finger, with his hand facing forward. The teacher took the picture and moved along to the next group.

The following Monday, Bruce was called out of his first class of the day, English, by Olive Branch High’s assistant principal Todd Michaels. Michaels then explains to Bruce that he is to be suspended for 3 days until his disciplinary hearing that would ultimately decide his fate at Olive Branch High. Why? Michaels pulls up and shows Bruce the picture his biology teacher took of him the previous Friday and explains to him, “You’re holding up gang signs in this picture.” Bruce very quickly tries to explain that the gesture he made in the photo was representative of his football jersey number, which is the number 3. He also argues that all of his teammates also do it and had absolutely no idea that the gesture was also an affililation symbol to the Vice Lords gang (let’s note that this gang’s presence is primarily 20 miles away from Olive Branch). The 3 days pass and Bruce’s mother accompanies him to the hearing. The verdict? “Indefinite suspension with the recommendation of expulsion” (NBC News, 2014).

With all the information that’s been provided, it’s safe to say that you’ve formed an opinion. Your opinion either supports that this is a problem or refutes it, it’s really rather simple. For educator and author Robert Ward, the School-to-Prison pipeline is a myth. To summarize his standing, Ward believes that the School-to-Prison pipeline is nothing more than a “scapegoat and simplistic solution for complex educational issues.” He also believes that educators and schools “are not the problem”. The “real culprit” of why children in the public school system are being funneled through into the justice system is “political paternalism, poverty, systematic undermining of schools and an omnipresent media that glamorizes and also normalizes violence, materialism, hypersexuality, narcissism and anti-intellectualism” (Ward, 2017).

Ward makes a decent argument, but have you ever heard of the saying “nice try, but no cigar?”. Firstly, his opinion on the matter is going to be biased due to the fact that he is indeed an educator. This alone clouds his judgement and also makes him defensive. As an educator he probably feels understandably attacked, almost as if his character and reputation is being called into question. Despite this, you realistically cannot say “schools and educators are not the problem” if you have not been to every public school there is and in depth researched them all.

He relies too heavily on what he’s seen in his classroom and the fact that he’s worked with “at risk teens for 26 years”. This is a very closed minded opinion that practically has no basis. He attempts to provide statistics to support his view, but not nearly enough to support his monumental claim. Also, passing off the problem as complex political and social constructs also isn’t helping his case either. If anything it seems as though he’s trying to make up for his lack of real factual data with big words that most won’t bother to research and will accept because of this to back his argument. This makes refuting his argument almost too easy, because he hasn’t given much to disprove. Maybe if he were to revamp his article, it could be revisited and more could be said.

Overall, the School-to-Prison pipeline is one of the many issues that is wrong public education nationwide. The goal of this paper was never to solve this problem, but rather to raise awareness, reenforce prior knowledge or to be enlightening on a new topic. This problem will continue to be a problem if we continue to do nothing and allow it to be one. Look at Dontadrian Bruce, only one of many victims of the School-to-Prison pipeline. If you noticed, a definitive conclusion on Bruce’s fate was never given after the mention of his punishment. If you’re finding yourself wondering why, consider this a challenge. Go research Bruce for yourself, and see what transpired. Hopefully this will pique your interest. If this does, you’ll find yourself reading about more young people who faced similar fates. You see, educating ourselves is actually fighting half the battle.

The more we know about a problem, the more tools we have in our tool-boxes that we can use to make some kind of change. Really, this goes for any problem. As a society we can never bring about change if we refuse to do something as basic as enriching our minds with information about the issues we face today. So just for today, read the rest of the article. Tomorrow, find another problem to read up on. As long as we continue learning and retaining information, we move closer and closer to cracking the codes that are problems.

Works Cited

  1. Kim, Catherine, et al. The School to Prison Pipeline: Structuring Legal Reform. New York University Press, 2012.
  2. “School Spirit or Gang Signs? ‘Zero Tolerance’ Comes Under Fire.”, NBCUniversal News Group, 9 Mar. 2014, [Accessed 6 Sep. 2019].
  3. Ward, Robert. “The Myth of the School-to-Prison Pipeline.” Robert Ward’s ‘Rewarding Education’ Blog for Teachers and Parents, 13 Sept. 2017, [Accessed 6 Sep. 2019].