The School-to-Prison Pipeline: How Federal Anti-Discrimination Law Fails to Protect Equal Educational Opportunity

27 Pages Posted: 14 Mar 2019 Last revised: 11 Jun 2019

See all articles by Erik James Girvan

Erik James Girvan

University of Oregon School of Law

Date Written: February 22, 2019


Among the core values of a democratic system is that children and youth, whatever their background, should have an equal opportunity to become responsible, productive, and successful members of society. In moderation, exclusionary school discipline, such as suspensions and expulsions, may support this value by helping schools preserve safe and orderly learning environments. In excess and when applied more frequently to students of color, however, removing students from the classroom undermines equal educational opportunity. This chapter explains how the rights that federal anti-discrimination law creates for students are poorly suited to protect them from the excessive and inequitable use of exclusionary discipline embodied in what is frequently referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” It first introduces and defines the school-to-prison pipeline with respect to its central characteristics related to school discipline. The chapter then reviews the scope of the basic sources of federal anti-discrimination law and identifies the limited circumstances in which they prohibit use of exclusionary discipline. Third, it summarizes the results of empirical research investigating the primary causes of racial disparities in exclusionary school discipline. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how federal law does not support or advance the value of equal education opportunity in this context because its scope fails to protect against the major causes of excessive and inequitable exclusionary discipline and with some thoughts about moving forward.

Keywords: school discipline, discrimination, school-to-prison pipeline, education law

JEL Classification: I24, K14, K39

Suggested Citation

Girvan, Erik James, The School-to-Prison Pipeline: How Federal Anti-Discrimination Law Fails to Protect Equal Educational Opportunity (February 22, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

Erik James Girvan (Contact Author)

University of Oregon School of Law ( email )

1515 Agate Street
Eugene, OR Oregon 97403
United States
541 346-8934 (Phone)


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