The Trump Administration and the School-to-Prison Pipeline

By: Claire Lambert 

The 2016 United States presidential election was a pivotal moment in American history. This race resulted in the election of Donald Trump, who ran on a platform steeped in racism, homophobia, and sexism, and whose efforts were ultimately characterized by many as a tragedy. This election impacted not only citizens, but also departments which rely on government funding, such as healthcare, transportation, social security and more. 

Education was especially impacted, in part because of Trump’s selection for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. This choice was controversial for many reasons, including her ties to for-profit education companies, her desire to privatize public education, and the fact that she had no experience in public education.  

DeVos’s time in the Department of Education was filled with controversial decisions, many of which aligned with Trump’s political platform. Though DeVos had many policies that were planned, proposed, and enacted, one of the most pivotal occurred in 2018, when DeVos recommended the removal of previously enforced disciplinary policies that were anti-discriminatory and designed to protect students that have been historically and systematically harmed by the public school system. Her team instead argued for schools to establish close partnerships with law enforcement, encouraging spending on training and arming school personnel. 

Why does this matter? 

DeVos’s plan was a source of contention within educational spaces. Her administration believed that School Resource Officers (SROs), or sworn-in law enforcement agents with the power to arrest, would result in safer schools, because “violent students were going unpunished.” 

Contrary to DeVos’ statement, research indicates that the presence of SROs results in 2.2 to 3 times more arrests, with the majority of these arrests being Black students. Additionally, SROs are associated with a dramatic increase in the number of suspensions of Black students. These statistics are representative of a larger problem impacting American schools: the school-to-prison pipeline. 

What is the school-to-prison pipeline? 

The school-to-prison pipeline is a phrase that refers to a national trend where Black and Brown youth are funneled from public schools into the criminal legal system through a combination of policies and practices in place both in and out of schools. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), known for its involvement in early legal battles involving education, has shown that Black students are 3 times more likely to be suspended and expelled compared to white students. This pipeline is further fueled by zero-tolerance policies, which result in severe punishment, regardless of the offense. The problem is exacerbated by the legacy of No Child Left Behind, a policy that prioritized high test scores for students. Research indicates that these tests negatively impacted Black and Brown students, resulting in higher dropout rates. This creates a direct path to the criminal legal system, as dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to go to prison. 


Millions of students are in schools where there are police, but no counselors, no social workers, and no school psychologists. The recommended standard is one counselor and one social worker for every 250 students—only 2 states in the United States meet this recommendation.

Students are experiencing mental health issues at rates never before seen, a trend researchers attribute to the combined impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the insufficient availability of essential resources within schools and communities. 

This lack of access is apparent when looking at the statistics — 80% of youth who need mental health services do not have access to these services. Of the remaining 20% who do receive mental health services, 80% obtain the support they require through schools. 

Schools that provide adequate staffing and offer mental health services are proven to reduce suspension and expulsion rates, and improve attendance rates, academic achievement, and graduation rates. 

This data clearly demonstrates that discipline and school resource officers are not the solution to the school-to-prison pipeline. Schools that are given proper resources and are able to provide access to quality mental health services can better support their students and prevent the funneling of Black and Brown students into prisons. 

What now? 

Despite the negative impact of the Trump administration’s actions and policies on schools and their ability to foster student success, glimmers of hope remain throughout the United States. While individual actions alone may not be sufficient to dismantle the various factors contributing to and reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline, Black and Brown educators have joined together to generate big changes. Through initiatives like Dignity in Schools, these educators collaborate with parents, community members, youth, and activists to challenge policies that result in the criminalization of Black and Brown students. 

Their work underscores the belief that education should be a human right, yet there is still work to be done to ensure access for all students. The efforts showcased by activists working to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline demonstrate the fact that it is possible to create a school system that repairs harm, promotes healing, and allows students to be present and successful in environments that are supportive and healthy

Biography of Authors

Claire Lambert is a doctoral candidate in the Program in Math Education (PriME) at Michigan State University (MSU) and received her M.A. in Educational Studies from the University of Michigan in Spring 2022. Her research interests include the intersections between policy and mathematics education and the ways in which these intersections can uphold whiteness. She enjoys running, reading, and spending time with friends and family (and her rabbits, Tofu and Manicotti).


Edited By: Allison Hanley, MPP 2024 // Francisco Brady, MPP 2025