Hillary Clinton’s “Breaking Every Barrier Agenda”: Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Hillary Clinton believes we need to break down all the barriers that hold Americans back and build ladders of opportunity for all our people. That’s why Clinton has laid out components of a “Breaking Every Barrier Agenda” that she will fight for as President. This vision reflects her belief that we must confront all of our challenges together and deliver real results for every American by:

These initiatives build on Clinton’s broader agenda to break down barriers holding Americans back by keeping immigrant families together, reforming our criminal justice system, ensuring full equality for LGBT Americans, expanding opportunity for women and girls, and more.

Today, Clinton is announcing the details of her plan to end the school-to-prison pipeline by transforming the way we approach discipline in America’s schools. This is a critical component of her Breaking Every Barrier Agenda because Clinton believes our schools should lead all students towards opportunity and provide them with a sense of hope. Parents, teachers and students all want safe, welcoming schools, but in some communities—especially African American communities—police involvement in school discipline, an over-reliance on suspensions and expulsions, and biases we too often ignore are leading students into a school-to-prison pipeline. During the 2011-2012 school year, about 3.5 million students were suspended, 260,000 were referred to law enforcement, and 92,000 were arrested either in school or through school activities. Rather than improving the quality of our schools, overly punitive disciplinary practices make matters worse. They are associated with lower academic performance and higher rates of dropout. They push our students off a path to success and rob teachers and parents of the chance to help children learn from their mistakes. They fuel America’s mass incarceration epidemic. And most distressingly, these policies have a discriminatory bend: students affected by the school-to-prison pipeline are disproportionately African Americans and Latinos, students with disabilities, and youth who identify as LGBT.

Reforming overly punitive disciplinary practices will not, by itself, solve the imbalances in our criminal justice system. To do that, we need a comprehensive approach that includes restoring trust between our communities and law enforcement officers, reforming our sentencing laws, easing the path to re-entry, and directing significant economic investments to underserved communities. But Clinton believes that our schools are also part of the solution.

As President, Clinton will:


The vast majority of principals, administrators, and teachers believe that overly punitive disciplinary practices do not help our children succeed. But the lack of resources available to our public schools, the immense responsibilities borne by our teachers, and biases that still too often exist have allowed an ineffective culture of zero-tolerance to take hold. Of course, when students commit violent offenses, they should be held accountable. But such incidents are rare, and schools are often the safest place a young person can be during the day. Indeed, nationwide, as many as 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent behavior. That’s why Clinton believes we need to change our approach to school discipline. To do that, we all have to work together—parents, teachers, schools, and our communities—to help our children succeed. As President, Clinton will empower our communities to do just that. She will:

  • Incentivize school districts to hire School Climate Support Teams in districts and schools with high suspension and in-school arrest rates. Clinton will dramatically increase funding for School Climate Transformation Grants from $23 million in FY2014 to $200 million annually, and will include in the program an incentive for school districts to hire School Climate Support Teams for the first year of the grant. These teams—comprised of social workers, behavioral health specialists, and education practitioners—will work with teachers, parents, and community members to develop and implement a comprehensive discipline reform plan for the school district. Grounded in research-based practices being implemented across the country, teams will help a district or school accurately assess its own disciplinary climate; reform its disciplinary code; establish “early-warning systems” to identify and assist at-risk students; provide training and professional development to staff on conflict de-escalation, intervention-based approaches to behavior, implicit and explicit bias, and restorative practices; assess resource allocation to see how school budgets can be distributed most effectively; and secure federal and district funding for social and emotional learning interventions and specialized staff. And because school districts often lack the capacity to meet the full spectrum of student needs, support teams will develop partnerships with external providers to help fill service gaps. Most importantly, teams will help a school or district build the long-term infrastructure necessary to continue this work once the grant expires.
  • Significantly expand evidenced-based behavioral support programs. Clinton’s expansion of School Climate Transformation Grants also will allow school districts to implement evidence-based behavioral support programs—with support from the Technical Assistance Center for Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports established by the US Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs. Research shows that effective behavioral support programs can reduce student involvement in the criminal justice system and improve academic performance. These programs are improving the long-term outcomes of our students. For example, the Becoming a Man (BAM) and Working on Womanhood (WOW) programs help students develop the social and emotional building blocks necessary to learn. The BAM program forecasted increased participant graduation rates by up to 22 percent, reduced arrests for violent crime by 30 to 50 percent, and generated societal benefits that may be up to 30 times the program’s cost.However, students of color, children in the child welfare system, and students in poverty are less likely to receive the behavioral health services they need than their peers. As a result, these students are more likely to face out-of-school suspensions and in-school arrests. This is unacceptable. That’s why Clinton is dramatically increasing funding for School Climate Transformation Grants. Additionally, under Clinton’s leadership, the Department of Education will work hand-in-hand with schools and districts to leverage Title I resources to expand behavioral support interventions supported by this new investment even further.


Of all the in-school factors that impact student achievement, nothing is more important than a high-quality teacher in the classroom. A teacher can spark a student’s love for learning, and can significantly affect a child’s life trajectory and career prospects. But teachers cannot succeed without adequate supports to ensure that they can actually focus on teaching. The same is true for principals, paraprofessionals, media specialists, and clerical, custodial, and school transportation staff. Every adult in a school must feel supported and empowered in working together to build a healthy and safe school culture—and schools across the country are taking the lead. For example, New York City’s Positive Learning Collaborative supports restorative justice programs that help reduce bullying, discipline issues, and suspensions by training staff to identify, de-escalate, and defuse potentially violent situations. As President, Clinton will:

  • Ensure that training on classroom climate and restorative justice is embedded in programming supported with Title II and Title IV funding. Starting on day one, the climate of a classroom is set by a teacher’s interactions with his or her students. Quality teacher preparation and continuing professional development and advancement opportunities are not only critical to a classroom’s academic success; they are also essential to its culture. That is why, in the coming months, Clinton will unveil a bold agenda to elevate the teaching profession, ensure educators are ready from day one, and create ladders of advancement and continuing development. Her plan will also increase the number of teachers of color; research suggests this can be instrumental in diminishing the school-to-prison pipeline.A critical component of Clinton’s agenda will be ensuring that restorative discipline is a key concept in teacher preparation and professional development. We should help teachers be prepared in how to effectively respond to, and in some cases anticipate, behavior in a way that maintains a productive learning environment and keeps students in the classroom. We should also ensure that we empower them to notice and address the implicit biases that we all need to confront. To support this work, Clinton will ensure that restorative justice and classroom climate training are embedded in peer mentoring programs, centers for induction, and other professional development and career path­way initiatives funded with Title II resources. She will also ensure these concepts are included in higher-education-based teacher preparation programs supported by Title IV funding.
  • Help districts hire specialized support professionals. Specialized support staff—including guidance counselors, social workers, and school psychologists—are an important resource for our students and our teachers. With the help of these professionals, teachers can better connect students with the social and academic resources they need to be successful. And specialized support staff can provide training to teachers and other school staff to help them foster a safer and more supportive learning environment. But too often, school districts lack the resources they need to employ such staff full-time—or, in some instances, do not prioritize these critical investments. Clinton recognizes the essential role specialized support staff can play in a school. That is why the School Climate Support Teams she is proposing will assist districts and schools in obtaining new federal, state, and community-based funding for permanent specialized support staff. Additionally, with the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states now have additional flexibility to use Title I resources to fund evidenced-based personalized learning interventions that support students with behavioral health challenges. Clinton will encourage states, districts, and schools to leverage this flexibility and expand behavioral health interventions and other in-school supports, such as community school coordinators.


African American boys are three times more likely to be suspended and African American girls are six times more likely to be suspended than their white peers—and that this disparity begins as early as preschool. Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than students without disabilities. And LGBT students report facing harsh and disparate discipline simply because of who they are. That’s unacceptable. Clinton believes that every student—regardless of race, disability, or sexual orientation—should receive a high quality education in a safe and supportive school. She believes that we should both support states and school districts in improving school discipline policies and outcomes, and hold them accountable for discriminatory practices. As President, Clinton will:

  • Call on states to eliminate overly broad school disturbance laws, and other laws that similarly criminalize student behavior. Several states have overly broad laws that make it a criminal offense to “disturb schools.” These laws can potentially cover any disciplinary infraction, including a student looking at her cell phone or speaking out during class. In some states, this offense is punishable by jail time—leading to law enforcement involvement in non-violent disciplinary matters best left to school staff. For example, in South Carolina, over 1,100 students were referred to the state Department of Juvenile Justice for “disturbing schools” during the 2013-2014 school year—the third most common offense associated with juvenile cases during that time. Research shows that criminalized disciplinary policies, such as school disturbance laws, disproportionately impact students of color. As a result, according to a 2014 report by the Department of Education, while black students represent 16 percent of student enrollment in American public schools, they represent 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students subject to a school-related arrest. This has to change. Clinton believes that disciplinary infractions shouldn’t result in harsh criminal punishment, and that the criminal justice system should be an absolute last resort in dealing with student behavior. That’s why she will call on states to eliminate overly broad school disturbance laws. And under her leadership, the Attorney General will issue best practice guidance on drafting laws that deal with violent in-school crime and non-student or staff school disturbances.
  • Make school climate and non-discriminatory discipline priorities in enforcing the Every Student Succeeds Act. The ESSA requires states to develop plans to reduce the use of exclusionary disciplinary policies and report rates of suspensions, expulsions, school-related arrests, and referrals to law enforcement. Clinton believes these measures are critical to ending the school-to-prison pipeline—and that they should be vigorously enforced. As President, she will issue regulations and provide technical assistance to ensure that data reporting is comprehensive, accurate, and complete. And she will ensure the Department of Education takes enforcement action if states do not report accurate and complete data to the best of their ability.The ESSA also allows states to include school climate and safety as one indicator of student success in their school accountability systems. If implemented correctly, this can provide schools, teachers, and parents with a more accurate view of equity and student success. Clinton will work with educators and practitioners to provide ongoing implementation support to states that choose this indicator so that schools can meaningfully measure school climate and safety, and are able to disaggregate those measurements by subpopulations.
  • Ensure equal access to education through vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws. The core mission of the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) is to ensure equal access to education and eliminate discriminatory practices through vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws. For districts with disparities in disciplinary enforcement that fail to adopt reforms, Clinton will ensure that OCR both investigates incoming complaints and pursues proactive investigations. In particular, OCR will scrutinize discipline disparities in states with overly broad school disturbance laws to ensure the enforcement of these laws in our schools does not violate Titles VI and IX of the Civil Rights Act or Section 504 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. As Clinton has previously said, this includes enforcing Title IX’s prohibition on sex discrimination as prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation. As President, Clinton will empower and support all of OCR’s regional offices to enforce school district compliance with these laws.


As alarming stories in places like Flint, Detroit, Dallas, and South Carolina continue to demonstrate, too many of America’s students and educators are forced to learn and teach in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. These dilapidated learning environments have been proven to negatively impact student achievement and decrease teacher retention and morale. Students cannot learn if their classrooms have unsafe drinking water, mold, inadequate ventilation, insufficient lighting and technology, peeling paint, and crumbling plaster. Researchers have also found a relationship between the physical environment of a school and problematic student behavior. And it’s students of color who are disproportionately impacted by this neglect. Clinton believes these conditions are appalling and must be addressed. As President, Clinton will:

  • Create “Modernize Every School Bonds” to repair unsafe and unhealthy schools. In November, Clinton announced a five-year $275 billion plan to repair America’s crumbling infrastructure. In part, this funding will support the reauthorization of the Obama Administration's Build America Bonds (BABs) program, which broadened the market for municipal borrowing by attracting new sources of capital that do not receive benefits associated with traditional tax-exempt debt. This program was very successful: in just two years, BABs supported more than $180 billion in infrastructure spending in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Clinton will build on President Obama’s success and create an innovative “super-BABs” initiative to provide greater federal government support than would otherwise be available for deserving projects. As part of her super-BABs initiative, she will create “Modernize Every School Bonds” that will double the BABs subsidy for efforts to fix and modernize schools in the lowest-income areas of our nation. From increasing energy efficiency, to fixing asbestos and lead, to creating science labs and installing high speed broadband, this support will help teachers create the healthy and supportive learning environments that students need to succeed.


As we provide support to schools and districts to reform their disciplinary practices, we must also take stock of programs that can undermine the dual goals of keeping our schools safe and building a school climate of support and achievement. An over-reliance on School Resource Officers (SROs)—sworn police officers in schools who have the power to arrest—in dealing with disciplinary infractions can lead to students being pulled out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system. And the presence of military-grade equipment in schools can exacerbate existing tensions, intensifying overly punitive atmospheres that often disproportionately criminalize and stigmatize students of color, students with disabilities, and students who identify as LGBT. Clinton believes that in order to fully support students, teachers, and communities, we need to reform harsh, overly-punitive practices in our schools. President Obama has taken bold and important steps to begin this work, including by issuing federal guidance encouraging schools to reserve out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and alternative placement only for incidents that threaten safety of students and staff. As President, to build on President Obama’s progress, Clinton will:

  • Support districts seeking alternatives to School Resource Officersand where SROs are used, ensure they are properly trained to abide by new national guidelines. In some schools, a reliance on SROs—rather than teachers and school administrators—to enforce disciplinary standards results in the criminalization of minor disciplinary infractions. Inconsistent and inadequate training for SROs and a lack of clear standards exacerbate this problem. As President, Clinton will support districts seeking alternatives that keep our children safe, such as non-punitive security services, mental health services, and school-wide positive behavior interventions and supports. Under her leadership, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice will fund research on evidenced-based alternatives to the SRO model. And federal grants will allow School Climate Support Teams to work with schools and districts to evaluate and potentially implement those best practices.For schools that continue to use SROs, Clinton will require—as a condition of federal funding—that they be properly trained to abide by a set of clear national guidelines. Currently, SRO training requirements vary from state to state, and some SROs have no school-specific training at all. Clinton will work with states, local leaders, educators, and parents to create new national guidelines on SRO conduct. These guidelines will include best practices for SRO training, including in de-escalation, non-punitive approaches to misbehavior, and crisis and mental health awareness. Like similar policies being implemented in Denver, CO and Broward County, FL, these guidelines will also discourage the involvement of SROs in minor, non-violent school discipline matters.
  • Eliminate the transfer of federal military equipment to, and its use by, police departments under school district control. The Department of Justice, Department of Defense, and Department of Homeland Security currently provide military equipment to local law enforcement agencies in the form of direct equipment transfers and grant assistance. President Obama has taken important steps in limiting these transfers, including taking executive action to ban departments solely serving K-12 schools from receiving any military-grade equipment from the federal government. As President, Clinton will continue this ban.More broadly, with regard to the many school districts that are not served by police departments under their direct control, Clinton has embraced President Obama’s restrictions on military equipment transfers for all local law enforcement agencies. She has also called for eliminating the one-year use requirement, and requiring transparency by agencies that purchase equipment using federal funds.