Careers & Guidance, Classroom Perspectives, Social Justice, Special Education

Breaking the IEP-to-Prison Pipeline

Breaking the IEP-to-Prison Pipeline

Originally published December 2020

By Matthew Ward

As a high school special education teacher, I specifically work with students who have a learning disability. I know that the effort, time, and finances invested by teachers and districts into these special programs is significant. Yet the statistics continue to indicate that efforts are not paying off: lower test scores, reading levels, graduation and college-bound rates. More alarming is the data that indicates these same students face higher rates of poverty and incarceration.

The Hechinger Report stated in an October 2014 article that a staggering one in three minors detained in juvenile hall have a learning disability. A 2015 study by the U.S. Department of Justice found jail inmates were six times more likely than the general population to report having a cognitive disability. This means that many of my students may be on the path to incarceration too. Therefore, we have to ask ourselves, what can we do differently?

We can begin at the end and recognize that the first steps a student takes after graduation are as critical as graduating itself. While some students have a clearly defined plan and purpose, many others do not.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that special education students receive services under an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Each student’s IEP is formalized at least once per year in writing and through a meeting comprised of a special education teacher, a parent, a school administrator, and at least one general education teacher, along with other professionals who may provide unique services such as a speech therapist, counselor, or hearing specialist. At the annual IEP meeting, team members review and put into place the student’s services and forms of classroom accommodations, discuss current progress, add new goals, and provide advice about how to help the student become or remain successful.

By the time a student turns sixteen, their IEP must also include transition services to help them prepare for life after high school. To accomplish this, a specific transition plan is developed. Each plan is based around age-appropriate, measurable goals related to education and employment for after high school. And, as with the rest of a student’s IEP, the transition plan is reviewed and updated every year.

These plans can be taken lightly or they can be treated with great importance, seen as clear paths for students to follow. They can become things of beauty or they can be swept under the rug. This is where I feel we are failing students.

Fifteen years ago, for the first time as a high school special education teacher, I took a few students to a nearby vocational college. We toured the campus, sat in a workshop, and got plenty of good information about applications and enrollment. Unfortunately, this trip didn’t seem to inspire any of my students to take action.

Then, about two years later, I crossed paths with one of the students on that trip, Chris, who now worked in the produce section at my favorite grocery store. I remembered that he had struggled greatly with grades and focus. However, Chris explained that he had actually just met with a counselor from that very college we had visited. He was interested in their HVAC program and decided to enroll. He would be starting courses soon. Hearing this news brought me a sense of assurance in the work I had done with Chris and in the great decision he had made.


A few more weeks passed and we met again in the produce section. This time, there was a big smile on Chris’ face and a light in his eyes. He updated me on his college experience so far and how much he was enjoying it. Soon after, we met yet again and Chris shared even more good news: his older brother, who was also a former student of mine, was enrolling in the same college program. In spite of Chris’ earlier struggles in high school, he seemed to have completed his college program successfully. The last time we spoke, he was about to begin his career.

This experience thoroughly convinced me that time must be spent getting students on a course that will land them in the right place after graduation. In spite of Chris’ high school struggle, he was able to carve out his own path, with time, because he had been given the necessary tools and information to do so. He knew what his options were, and what he needed to do to achieve his goals.

IEP transition plans take this one step further, helping students develop and achieve those goals before they leave high school, while they still have the support of teachers and counsellors. Having witnessed Chris’ success, I was able to realize the importance of these transition plans, and have since fully embraced them.

These days, most of my students include junior college as the key part of their plan. By the time graduation comes, nearly all of them have met with a Disability Support Services counselor from their future college, visited the college campus, have their college ID card, and have their fall schedule in place. They are taught what to do instead of just being cut loose.

The senior year of high school isn’t always conducive to a student taking some of these essential steps and often, the ones who need extra encouragement are the ones who miss out. Students get stuck in their tracks with “senior-itis.” Teachers and families tend to focus on festivities, rather than thinking about the future. But the dust will settle at some point.

I urge IEP case managers and team members to put their efforts into each student’s transition plan during those final years of high school. Conversations need to happen. Local college counselors need to be pulled in. Both the parent and the student need to be on board. Once the plan is created, take it to heart. Share it. Talk about it. Reflect on it again and again. Implement it in the fullest way possible.

The “IEP-to-prison pipeline” is one of the saddest phrases any teacher will ever hear. We must approach our profession with an end goal in mind. We must have a vision of each and every one of our students walking down a good path, a path that is right for them, right for their future. This path must take them to a rewarding and enjoyable career, to lifelong success, and a million miles away from any prison. Whenever I am back at that grocery store, I find myself inspired by Chris’ successful journey and am reminded that even in spite of the challenges, every effort I put in is worth it.

*Student names have been changed.

Matthew Ward is a special education teacher at Delhi High School in California, an assistant adjunct professor at Temple University, and a father of three children. He is an advocate of personal motivation, gratitude, and that doing the small things in life make a difference.