Theses Doctoral

Disabling the School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Mixed Methods Study of the Relationship Between Special Education and Arrest

Vernikoff, Laura

Young people who have received special education services in the United States are vastly overrepresented in juvenile and adult criminal justice systems relative to their numbers in the general population. Although much existing research frequently assumes that deficits within young people are the cause of this problem, research also suggests that educational experiences can increase the likelihood that young people will get arrested. However, the exact mechanisms by which time at school seems to lead to prison for so many young people who have received special educational services is unclear.

This study uses a Disability Studies (DS) framework to understand this problem. Disability Studies scholars view disability as a social construction; students do not have a disability that justifies differential treatment, they become disabled through school practices that privilege particular norms for doing and being at school. In addition, DS scholars and activists have taken up the mantra, “Nothing about us without us,” insisting that the perspectives of individuals with disabilities be included in any research about disability.

This mixed methods study sought to understand both which school-level factors predict arrest for young people receiving special education services and how young people present and explain those and other school-level factors. I conducted regression analysis using administrative data from the New York City Department of Education and New York State Education Department to determine which school-level factors predict arrest, on average, for young people receiving special educational services in New York City’s public secondary schools for one school year. Then, I conducted semi-structured interviews with six young people who have received special education services and been arrested in NYC.

This study suggests that school-level factors do significantly increase the likelihood that a school will have students receiving special education services who have been arrested. These school-level factors are alterable by policy and practice. This study further suggests that young people receiving special education services describe and evaluate their educations in relation to imagined “regular” schools rather than according to how their schools actually help or hinder them.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Curriculum and Teaching
Thesis Advisors
Knight-Manuel, Michelle Georgia
Connor, David J.
Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University
Published Here
June 4, 2018