Forum For Thought

Can Afterschool Play a Role in Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

Olivia Thomas, AYPF Policy & Research Intern

Last month, I attended AYPF’s Capitol Hill Forum detailing potential pathways to success for systems-involved youth. After listening to a number of panelists discuss both the staggering challenges that these young people face, as well as potential solutions to address them, a single question began to form in my mind: how can we, as a society, be more preemptive about the issue of youth incarceration in this country? One answer may come from an unlikely place: afterschool.

The school-to-prison pipeline is a common name for the systematic funneling of young people out of schools and into the juvenile justice system. Zero-tolerance disciplinary policies and police presence in schools are two of the main practices that have led the United States to have one of the highest youth incarceration rates in the world.  Statistics surrounding the school-to-prison pipeline are both striking and deeply disturbing. For example:

  • In the 2009-2010 school year, 96,000 students were arrested at their schools, and an additional 242,000 were referred to law enforcement by a school administrator.
  • Black and Hispanic students made up more than 70 percent of those students.
  • LGBTQ students and disabled students are also disproportionately punished under punitive policies as compared to their peers.
  • Black youth in particular make up about 16% of students in public schools, but approximately 40% of the students being arrested and committed to the juvenile justice system. This translates to black students being more than four times as likely as their white peers to be arrested at school despite the fact that both groups commit disciplinary offenses at similar rates.

Meanwhile, afterschool or out-of-school time (OST) programs – including those that occur during the summer – have steadily expanded nationwide as more communities and institutions recognize the value that these programs hold for youth from various backgrounds. Research shows a number of positive outcomes associated with participation in high-quality OST programs, such as increased school attendance and fewer behavioral issues. Student outcomes for additional academic and behavioral indicators are also overwhelmingly positive and point largely to the need for increased attention to OST as a critical lever to promote healthy, positive development in young people.

Research has shown that afterschool has the greatest positive impact on traditionally disadvantaged students who don’t otherwise have access to the type of support and capital these programs provide. Not surprisingly, these are the same students being targeted and affected most by the school-to-prison pipeline. As one study on youth success notes, “larger contextual factors of society, the economy, and institutions (such as schools) play a central role in the inequitable opportunities afforded to young people.”

If afterschool promotes positive youth development for the youth who need it most, and has been shown to improve school attendance and reduce behavioral issues, there may be an opportunity to better position OST as a mechanism for preventing disciplinary action and potentially disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline. For instance:

  • Source: Afterschool Alliance,

    Afterschool and OST programs provide a safe, supportive place for young people to spend their time. The activities offered by specific programs provide a positive focus for their energy and keep them engaged between the critical hours of 3:00-7:00 pm – the time frame in which violent crimes by juveniles occur most frequently.

  • Social and emotional learning (SEL) has long been a central point of afterschool programming. In learning skills such as self-awareness and responsible decision making, youth can learn to better manage their emotions and experiences, and navigate potentially hostile classroom environments in a way that is considered more acceptable by school administrators.
  • Another longtime focus of afterschool has been on culturally relevant teaching. This practice ensures that different narratives and cultures are represented truthfully and equitably in lessons and activities. As a result, students from disadvantaged backgrounds feel seen and heard in their learning experience, and can play an active, productive role in it.

    Source: Afterschool Alliance,

  • Afterschool can connect students to various opportunities and resources that allow them to explore postsecondary career and education options that they would not have access to otherwise. Career exploration, college visits, and internships are the types of experiences that can help keep students engaged in their learning by challenging and motivating them to think about their future path.
  • Wraparound services exist to holistically serve the needs of youth. Afterschool programs can integrate these services to further provide students with the tools and support they need, from access to healthy food to connections to social services. Wraparound supports in OST settings can ensure young people have the resources and support they need so they can better function and thrive in a school environment.


The school-to-prison pipeline is a daunting social problem affecting our most vulnerable groups of young people. Disrupting this system will require concerted efforts from a diverse range of actors and systems. Although afterschool is not the silver bullet to ending the school-to-prison pipeline, it can certainly have a significant role to play.

The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF’s events and policy reports are made possible by the support of a consortium of philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.

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