Widening the Scope: Conceptualizing the School-Prison Nexus Beyond School Discipline
Research on the nexus between schools and prisons, which overwhelmingly impacts students of color, has predominately focused on punitive school discipline, such as suspension, expulsion and arrest—or zero tolerance policies. This focus, while important, has generated a narrow conceptualization of the racialized relationship between schooling and incarceration, whereby the multiple and interconnected exclusionary policies fueling this relationship are not adequately explored. In this paper, I suggest that referrals to alternative education (AE) are one mechanism of racialized exclusion whose contributions to the nexus remained under-examined in literature on the school-to-prison pipeline. To fill this gap, and to expand our understanding of the continuum of exclusionary practices fueling the nexus, I use Critical Race Theory to propose the theoretical semblance between zero tolerance policies and AE referrals. I then explore this link empirically, by relying on statewide school district data from a variety of sources to examine: the school district characteristics associated with racially disproportionate enrollment in California’s continuation schools; and the extent to which racially disproportionate AE referrals and racialized zero tolerance discipline occur under contexts with similar characteristics. I find that racially disparate AE referrals and zero tolerance policies share multiple contextual characteristics, and that key divergences in these similarities indicate their potential operation as complementary mechanisms of exclusion. I conclude with implications for future investigations of the school-prison nexus.