Projects Aim to Plug St. Louis’s School-to-Prison Pipeline
For too many St. Louis children, entering a school room is the first step toward ending
up in a prison cell. Often, trouble in school leads to trouble with the law and these
same kids enter the juvenile justice system. But Saint Louis University’s Norm White,
Ph.D., aims to plug what experts call the school-to-prison pipeline and in doing so,
to create a better future for some of the area’s most vulnerable students.
“Misbehavior may be related to trauma children have experienced or untreated mental
health issues,” White says. “This is about providing a new lens to view disciplinary
incidence and systemic issues that contribute to racial inequalities.”
A National Problem, Local Consequences
Research shows that suspensions and expulsions may lead children to drop out of school
and eventually to end up in the justice system. Research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation has shown that juvenile run-ins with the law can become a cycle of incarceration
that can harm families for generations. Public interest in shutting down the school-to-prison
pipeline has risen in recent years, with the Public Broadcasting Service, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and Rolling Stone among highlighting its devastating toll on communities nationwide. The pipeline overwhelmingly
impacts kids of color, those from low-income backgrounds and students with disabilities.
St. Louis leads the nation in school suspensions for African American children. White,
associate professor of criminology and criminal justice in the College for Public
Health and Social Justice, has been working with a coalition of local foundations,
the St. Louis Public Schools and leaders in the juvenile justice system, to provide
teachers and staff at seven local public schools with tools to meet the complex needs
of their students and communities.
White’s projects include SLU’s Overground Railroad to Literacy and Shut It Down: Closing
the School to Prison Pipeline. Both have garnered widespread attention since 2014.
The St. Louis American recently profiled Shut It Down and White gave a TEDxGatewayArch talk this past fall. Most recently, White and his work received the St. Louis County
Children's Service Fund's Dr. John M. Anderson Excellence in Mental Health Award at
the St. Louis American Foundation's Salute to Excellence in Health Care luncheon April
The Overground Railroad to Literacy is a tutoring and volunteer training program that
connects SLU students with students in schools throughout North St. Louis as tutors
and mentors. More than 70 students have taken part and the project now includes sites
in four schools and area nonprofits.
Shut It Down provides racial equity and implicit bias education for teachers so that
they are better able to work with students who have experienced trauma or severe stress
in their lives outside of the classroom. The goal is to foster the development of
safe and supportive school environments that create opportunities for students to
improve educationally while minimizing the need for the kinds of school disciplinary
practices like suspensions that can lead to worse outcomes for kids, in school and
“We have to get this right. There are people dying because we can’t get this right.
There are cities burning because we can’t get this right. We have the opportunity
to do something different, and to be present in ways that others can’t,” White says.
"Quilting" Resources and Research to Help Communities
Since 2014, White’s research has been supported by a consortium of foundations including
the Incarnate Word Foundation, the Greater St. Louis Community Foundation, the SAIGH
Foundation, Trio Foundation, Lutheran Foundation, the Dana Brown Charitable Trust,
Deaconess Foundation, and the St. Louis Mental Health Board. Judges Jimmie Edwards
and David Mason, of the St. Louis Circuit Court, have also been instrumental to the
White’s projects approach the underlying issues driving the school to prison pipeline
as requiring “a quilt of resources” to ensure children, their families and communities
have what they need to break destructive cycles. He sees SLU as distinctly able to
positively impact the pipeline.
“Our College (College for Public Health and Social Justice) is unique in its extraordinary
intersection of academic disciplines that can be brought to bear in the community,”
White says. “We can bring the evidence base and the real world together.”
To learn more about White’s work, visit SLU’s Community Engagement Inventory.
Portions of this article previously appeared in the College for Public Health and
Social Justice’s fall alumni magazine, SoJust.