Use of criminal justice language in personal narratives of out-of-school suspensions: Black students, caregivers, and educators

Misa Kayama, Wendy Haight, Priscilla A. Gibson, Robert Wilson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Racial disproportionality in out-of-school suspensions is a persistent social justice issue affecting students, families, and schools. This research examined the use of criminal justice language in the personal narratives of out-of-school suspensions of 31 Black students aged 11-17. years, 28 caregivers, and 19 educators who participated in individual, semi-structured, audio-recorded interviews. A total of 51 criminal justice and legal terms were spontaneously used 474 times by 59 out of 78 participants. Social language analyses indicted that participants used criminal justice terms in a variety of ways including to speak through the authoritative criminal justice perspective to justify or resist punitive actions, and to create new meanings within the school context. By using criminal justice language, a strong and consistent message is sent to youths about the connection between their misbehaviors at school and the criminal justice system. Indeed, students spoke through the perspective of the criminal defendant using terms such as "crime," "self-defense," and "prisoner" to describe themselves, their behaviors and experiences of out-of-school suspensions. The use of criminal justice language at school may impact Black students' perspectives of their own misbehaviors, relevant to the development of a criminalized self and social identity. We discuss the use of criminal justice language to refer to student misbehaviors in school as one potential mechanism in the school-to-prison pipeline. More generally, we discuss implications for resisting the criminalization of Black students through the ways in which we communicate about and with them at school.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)26-35
Number of pages10
JournalChildren and Youth Services Review
StatePublished - Apr 1 2015

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was funded by the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs , 1000-10184-20078 , Agricultural Experiment Station , 218877MIN-55-018 , Gamble-Skogmo endowment (University of Minnesota) and Spencer Foundation , 201300047 . The authors also would like to thank Jane Marshall, Mallerie Shirley, Abigail Henderson, Timothy Warren, Parmananda Khatiwoda, and Kelly Evans for their help with data collection and analysis.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Elsevier Ltd.


  • Hidden curriculum
  • Out-of-school suspensions
  • Racially disproportionate discipline
  • School-to-prison pipeline
  • Social language analysis


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