To Report or Not to Report: Data on School Law Enforcement, Student Discipline, Race, and the “School-to-Prison Pipeline”

Jason P. Nance - University of Florida Levin College of Law
Michael Heise - Cornell Law School
Vol. 55
November 2021
Page 209

The “school-to-prison pipeline” wreaks havoc on the lives of thousands of students each year, particularly with respect to students of color. While the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the school-to-prison pipeline remain unclear, the eventual return to full in-person teaching nationwide undoubtedly will renew this long-festering problem. The presence of law enforcement officers in schools is a key component of the school-to-prison pipeline and has generated considerable recent national attention, especially after George Floyd’s tragic death in the spring of 2020. Indeed, several robust empirical studies document that the increased presence of school resource (and/or police) officers in a school corresponds with an increased likelihood that a school will report various types of student disciplinary incidents to law enforcement agencies. This trend is troubling. Empirical studies demonstrate that when students become involved in the criminal justice system there are potentially severe implications.

This Article furthers the school-to-prison pipeline scholarly literature in at least two critical ways. First, the current literature’s understandable focus on school reporting behaviors entirely ignores school decisions to not report student incidents to law enforcement agencies. We address this gap by comparing determinants of schools’ decisions to report and to not report student disciplinary matters to law enforcement agencies. In so doing we provide greater clarity on how schools exercise their institutional discretion in the student disciplinary context. What we find, on balance, is that schools with a comparatively greater SRO/police presence are systematically more inclined to report than exercise discretion and not report student disciplinary incidents.

Second, this Article provides greater insight into the complexities associated with race, student discipline, and the context for which the pernicious effects of implicit racial bias may have the greatest influence on student disciplinary outcomes. Troubling racial inequalities in the public school system abound — particularly with respect to student discipline. Yet, we find that the overall concentration of students of color in a school largely does not influence the rate at which schools report students to law enforcement or when schools decide to exercise institutional discretion and not report. On its face, this finding is inconsistent with the prominent normative literature. However, it comports with our general understanding of how implicit racial bias operates and its nuanced effects in the school disciplinary context. Specifically, when disciplinary incidents require school officials to subjectively characterize student behavior (e.g., defiance, disrespect, disruption), the effects of implicit racial bias are more pronounced, often producing significant inequitable outcomes. In contrast, when less characterization is required, (e.g., possession of drugs or weapons, fighting, theft), which is the basis for most student referrals to law enforcement, the effects of implicit racial bias are often mitigated, resulting in fewer racial equity concerns.
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