The School-to-Prison Pipeline in Ontario

The term school-to-prison pipeline (SPP) describes the disproportional impact that harsh school disciplinary policies that criminalize students have on marginalized populations, causing the education system to become an avenue for racialized youth to enter the criminal justice system. These harsh disciplinary policies can also lead to the criminalization of racialized students outside of school, as students who are missing school do to expulsions or suspensions are twice as likely to be arrested during these periods of punishment. The school-to-prison pipeline is intrinsically linked to the explosion in incarcerations that occurred within Canada and the US starting in the late 1970s. An increase in the criminalization and incarceration of racialized students at this time mirrors the mass-incarceration of racialized people more broadly. In Ontario, the root of the SPP phenomenon are commonly linked to the Safe Schools Act (2000), which was largely seen as a companion policy to the Safe Streets Act (1999). However, the phenomenon stems farther back then these two documents.


The Lewis Report (1992)

On May 4th, 1992, riots broke out on Yonge Street following the acquittal of the four police officers responsible for the beating of Rodney King in LA. This incident led the provincial government to issue a report on race relations in Ontario, investigated and delivered by the newly formed Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System, led by Stephen Lewis. This report investigated systemic ravcism in the criminal justice system, employment equity, and the school system. This report pointed out failures in equitable hiring practices, Eurocentric curriculum, training, and disproportionate discipline of racialized students. Many of these sentiments expressed by racialized students interviewed mirror concerns still prevalent in our schools today:


Where are the courses in Black history? Where are the visible minority teachers? Why are there so few role models? Why do our white guidance counsellors know so little of different cultural backgrounds? Why are racist incidents and epithets tolerate? Why are there double standards of discipline? Why are minority students streamed? Why do they discourage us from University? Where are we going to find jobs? What’s the use of having an education if there’s no employment? How long does it take to change the curriculum so that we’re a part of it? (Lewis, 1992, p. 20-21)


The Safe Schools Act, 2000

This law implemented a zero-tolerance discipline policy for schools on an Ontario-wide basis. Zero-tolerance, in this context, means mandatory expulsion and suspension for offences like bringing a weapon to school or possession of drugs, as well as strict punishment for a myriad of other minor offences, like dress code violations. Zero-tolerance policies became popular after the 1999 Columbine Massacre, leading school districts across the US and Canada to implement such policies in the ensuing moral panic. 


A Harvard study found that such policies disproportionately affected racialized minorities, students with special needs, and commonly led students these students to be expelled without proper investigation. In Ontario, the effects of these policies on racialized students are hard to quantify, as the race of students was not recorded in disciplinary records. However, available evidence shows that Black, Tamil, Aboriginal, and Latino students were disciplined much more harshly than their White counterparts for the same offences. Anecdotal evidence in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) saw these policies cause students to be “suspended and expelled in ‘droves’ as teachers and principals overextended their increased power to suspend and expel. These policies, combined with insufficient programs to reinstate suspended or expelled students, contributed to the disproportionate dropout rate observed in racialized students. Low-income families could not afford the lawyers needed to represent students in suspension and expulsion hearings, further disadvantaging low-income students. Failure to finish high school can lead to greater economic insecurity and criminalization in the future, perpetuating a cycle of societal disenfranchisement starting in the classroom. The Ontario Review of the Roots of Youth Violence explain this phenomenon well:


For those students who were already facing socio-economic barriers, learning disabilities, racism, isolation and other factors, and living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, the punitive and exclusionary nature of the safe schools provisions became another factor that harmed their development as individuals and promoted alienation, disengagement and a lack of hope for the future. (p. 55)


Dismantling of Zero-Tolerance and Establishing SROs, 2008

In 2008, after outcries surrounding the violence perpetrated by the Safe Schools Act, the Province assembled a School Safety Advisory Panel. After a review reiterated the negative affect of these policies the Ontario Ministry of Education ended zero-tolerance policies, amending the Safe Schools act. This led to a drop in suspensions.


This positive movement away from criminalizing policies was counteracted by the introduction of School Resource Officers (SROs), police officers permanently deployed in schools, in Ontario starting in 2008. The introduction of SROs was once again a policy development of US school being mirrored in Ontario. This policy was adopted in Ontario after the shooting death of Jordan Manners in a TDSB school in 2007. SROs were meant to protect students from these incidents of violence but became the de facto disciplinary enforcers in Ontario schools. However, these officers undermined safety by leading teachers to not report incidents in the classroom due to fear of overly harsh punishment carried out by SROs. Students have reported feeling labelled as untrustworthy, leading school to not feel like a neutral safe place, ultimately undermining learning even in the strongest of students.


PDSB Provincial Report

These issues persist still today. In the 2020 review of the Peel District School Board referenced Lewis (1992) directly when discussing concerns of structural racism in their school board. Black students are still over-represented in suspensions. Progressive discipline schemes are implemented less often for racialized students, with teachers escalating trivial issues and stigmatizing Black students at a very young age. Police officers have handcuffed and detained students as young as the first grade. This report shows that in the 28 years since the Lewis Report, these issues still have not changed. There is a disproportionate lack in racialized teachers, school staff and leadership. Racialized students are still being expelled and suspended at higher rates. Racialized students are still being streamed into non-academic programs and are over-represented in advanced learning programs. These patterns continue to push racialized students out of the school system and criminalize racialize students, feeding into larger punitive cycles of incarceration that further marginalize racialized peoples.


By Noah Kelly, Intern

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