top of page

Take Me To EVENTS page

Our Invisible Youth: Addressing Disparities in the School-To-Prison Pipeline

African American kids at the school gym

This post continues our new blog series on poverty. As our nation reflects on its progress in fighting poverty over the last 50 years, this blog series will highlight how psychology can contribute further to this discussion.

By Dawn X. Henderson, PhD (Assistant Professor, Winston-Salem State University)

From Washington, DC and across the nation, numerous politicians, policymakers, and researchers have led a movement to address disparities in out-of-school suspension practices. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. have recently engaged in national discussions and federal legislation to address school discipline practices and their implications for economically disadvantaged ethnic minority youth.

The “invisible” youth

Ralph Ellison (1952) wrote “I am invisible; understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” Ellison’s allegorical tale of a man navigating his environment runs parallel to the lives of numerous economically disadvantaged ethnic minority youth who transition into the public school system. These youth are often criminalized due to discriminatory practices in schools and failing foster care and mental health systems (Southern Poverty Law Center).

The criminalization of these youth is a testament of how poverty and being a minority, specifically African American, Hispanic, and Native American, is shaped by individual perceptions of social deviance. For example, African American youth are more often referred to the principal’s office than white youth for low-level violations (e.g., disrespect and excessive noise; Losen, 2011).

As such, they feel invisible when their cultural and community strengths are devalued and perceived as deficits. Moreover, they feel invisible when they are pushed out of the school system and discarded into the criminal justice system.

“People refuse to see me”

President Lyndon B. Johnson discussed social inequalities in his 1964 speech and Jonathan Kozol wrote about inequalities across the U.S. educational system in the 1990s; today economically disadvantaged ethnic minority youth are still disproportionately funneled out of the school system and into the criminal justice system.

People refuse to see me” denotes the country’s inability to move on policies and practices that address disparities between them and their white counterparts. These disparities did not happen overnight; they are systemic, institutional, and continue to ignore the cries of economically disadvantaged ethnic minority youth across the United States.

In the United States, those who are economically disadvantaged—the poor—are rendered invisible by a lack of policies designed to increase the capacity of multiple systems (e.g., family). As a consequence for this lack of action, youth growing up in poor communities are:

  1. Unable to access quality health care and facilities to promote healthy development, especially among undocumented immigrant youth (The Youth Project).

  2. Food insecure and families often have to make choices between “healthy” versus “affordable” options. Some youth who grow up in economically disadvantaged households may often come to school not only to learn but to receive a meal.

  3. More likely to eat processed foods (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) that impacts their physiological and biological processes and has implications on emotional regulation and behavior management.

  4. More likely to be born from mothers who were unable to access proper neonatal health care and nutrition while pregnant. This lack of neonatal care has implications for a child’s health and development, including cognitive capabilities.

  5. More likely to encounter teachers who are not certified, have higher attrition rates in the public school system, and often perceive them as “oppositional.” These teachers are more likely to form judgments based on their biases and perpetuate the exclusion of youth from the educational process.

  6. Receive more punitive consequences when misbehaving in school and harsher sentences.

Economically disadvantaged ethnic minority youth are further disengaged from school by the lack of cultural representation in textbooks and the devaluation of their culture and experiences. The distress and stress found in their neighborhoods and family associated with generations of poverty are ignored. And, these youth, as Ellison wrote “ache with the need to convince yourself that you do exist in the real world.” How do they do that? For some youth, their ache is their aggression and evident in the defiance they demonstrate against teachers and school systems.

How psychologists can bring visibility to economically disadvantaged and ethnic minority youth

In 1964, President Johnson stated “investing in salvaging an unemployable youth today can return $40,000 or more in his lifetime.” His speech embodied a prevention focus and, without necessarily acknowledging it, Johnson framed the capacity of individuals within multiple systems (e.g., education, housing, health care, etc.).

Psychologists need to bridge disciplines and fields in designing multi-systems prevention (e.g., that includes strengthening families, schools, and communities). We must understand that disparities in suspension are not ascribed to “deviant behavior” of poor ethnic minorities, but rather reflect structural inequalities that influence relationships between youth, their families, and communities.

We must understand the value of psychological theories in influencing research and action to address disparities and pathologies. Several psychologists and divisions within the American Psychological Association have taken up the reigns to do this. For example:

  1. Advances in neuroscience are shaping the design of school-based prevention programs aimed to promote social-emotional competence among younger children (Berg, Coman, & Schensul, 2009; Greenberg, 2006).

  2. Psychologists are working in interdisciplinary teams to use prevention science to inform practices and policies that reduce pathological outcomes and empower individuals and their communities (National Prevention Science Coalition).

  3. Researchers from the Society for Community Research and Action (Division 27) and Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (Division 9) use empowerment and participatory practices to engage youth, community members and agencies across multiple systems in advocacy and policy change.

At the end of Invisible Man, Ellison wrote:

“Because in spite of myself I’ve learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled ‘file and forget,’ and I can neither file nor forget.”

We cannot forget our youth, our efforts should be designed to address disparities and work with youth and their communities in building systems that embrace prevention science. Only collective efforts can reduce disparities in school suspension practices and the number of economically disadvantaged ethnic minority youth funneled into the school-to-prison pipeline.


Ashton, D., & Anderson-Butcher, D. (2007). Innovative models of collaboration to serve children, youths, families and communities.  Children & Schools, 26 (1), 39-53.

Berg, M., Coman, E., & Schensul, J. J. (2009). Youth action research for prevention: A multi-level intervention designed to increase efficacy and empowerment among urban youth. American Journal of Community Psychology, 43, 345-359. doi: 10.1007/s10464-009-9231-2

Cammarota, J., & Fine, M. (2007). Revolutionizing education: Youth participatory action research in motion. New York, NY: Routledge

Durlak, J. A., Taylor, R. D., Kawashima, K., Pachan, M. K., DuPre, E. P., Celio, C.I.,…Weissberg, R. P. (2009). Effects of positive youth development programs on school, family, and community systems. American Journal of Community Psychology, 39, 269–286. doi: 10.1007/210464-00709112-5

Ellison, R. (1952). Invisible man. New York, NY: Random House

Greenberg, Mark T. (2006). Promoting resilience in children and youth. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1094, 139-150.

Losen, D. J. (2011). Discipline policies, successful schools, and racial justice. Boulder, CO: National Education Policy Center. Retrieved from


Dawn X. Henderson, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Winston-Salem State University and a member of Division 27 (Society for Community Research and Action) of the American Psychological Association. Her research focuses on community and school-based alternative-to-suspension programs for high-risk youth. Any comments or feedback can be sent to

Image source: Flickr user Jed Sullivan via Creative Commons


bottom of page