Stump Speech: “School-to-Prison Pipeline”

Stump Speech is a recurring series that examines the language used on the campaign trail – how well it works, and who’s behind it.

Today’s phrase: “School-to-Prison Pipeline”


A system of student discipline that leads at-risk children to be incarcerated later in life.

Recent sighting

During a speech this week at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, Hillary Clinton pledged $2 billion to reform classroom discipline policies that disproportionately affect minority students. Specifically, she said she would hire guidance counselors, school psychologists, social workers, and other school support staff.

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The timing of Clinton’s speech was widely seen as an appeal to African-American voters – whom she must win over in the South Carolina Democratic primary on February 27. She accused the GOP of using “coded racial language” to disparage President Obama. And she used a bit of coded language herself – calling the pattern of school discipline that disproportionately affects minority children the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Clinton advocated for a “cradle-to-college pipeline” instead.

Who’s behind it

Harvard University’s Nancy Heitzeg credits researchers Johanna Wald and Daniel J. Losen with the first use of the term in 2003. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund brought the phrase to greater prominence with its 2005 paper “Interrupting the School to Prison Pipe-line.”

The system has also been called the “schoolhouse to jailhouse track” by the Advancement Project or the “cradle to prison track” by the Children‘s Defense Fund.

Our take

A “pipeline” doesn’t seem like the best metaphor. First, it dehumanizes: objects pass through a pipeline, not people. Second, it doesn’t reflect any firsthand experience. It sounds detached – the language of a researcher describing a process, rather than an advocate seeking to change it.

I’d recommend a phrase that more clearly evokes the image of an overcrowded, zero-tolerance classroom: the “prison within our schools” or children who become permanently “expelled” from society.