Zero Tolerance in Schools Means More Children Headed to Prison
I think most parents of school-age children realize that although student’s behavior in school probably hasn’t changed all that much since we were in school, the way schools react to behavior issues certainly has.
Here are just a few incidents that I had some direct, personal knowledge of in the last couple of years:
- A third-grade boy found a small pocket knife on the playground at his school. He immediately took it to a playground supervisor. The police were called and the boy was interrogated. He was found to be telling the truth, but was shaken by the incident.
- A fourth-grade girl on the way to her bus after school remembered that she told her teacher she would drop off a form she brought from home. When she re-entered the building to go to her classroom, a teacher refused to allow her to return to her classroom. The girl thought she would get in trouble and started crying.
The teacher considered her insubordinate and a troublemaker and took her to the office. When the teacher called her mother to report the incident, the mother expressed concern about her daughter possibly missing her bus because the mother had no means of transportation to pick up her child.
The teacher threatened to call the police so they could deal with the matter. Fortunately, the school psychologist walked into the office, sized up the situation, and safely escorted the child to her bus so she could go home.
- A 15-year-old African-American boy’s cell phone sounded during his English class. His teacher asked him for his phone, but he said he would turn it off and didn’t want to give it up. The teacher demanded it and the boy insisted he keep it.
The teacher called for the police-liaison officer to come to her room and the boy was taken to the school office. The boy received a 10-day suspension for being disorderly and disruptive. He complained that white students whose phones went off during class were allowed to just mute them.
These three incidents are not as egregious as others I have heard about: Kindergarten students being arrested, special education students being handcuffed by police officers and then being charged with disorderly conduct and assault, and grade-school students getting suspended for 180 days for having a weapon (which most often was a jack knife, pendant hanging from their neck, or a sharp pencil).
But such incidents point out a problem for many students across the country these days. Too many children in this country are losing out on learning time and much too frequently are being criminalized for behaviors that are — in the grand scheme of things — relatively minor and inconsequential.
What has been happening in our schools increasingly during the past decade or so is that suspensions and expulsions are increasing and many students are being marginalized by schools and dumped from school into the criminal justice system.
Some experts are referring to the problem as the school-to-prison pipeline. What this means is that there is a national trend of criminalizing, rather than educating, our nation’s children.
We know that every year in this country that more than three million students are suspended, and a 100,000 more are expelled. We don’t know how many young people go directly from the school house to the jailhouse because we don’t know how many kids are arrested at school. But some authorities are estimating that it may be in the hundreds of thousands.
The ironic aspect of this is that the criminalization of students has been happening at a time when youth arrests in general in this country and when youth violence has been on the decline for many years. Suspensions, expulsions, and arrests at school are not occurring because we are faced with an epidemic of youthful violent behavior.
The fact is that student’s behavior hasn’t changed much over the past few generations. What has changed is the response of schools to behavior. Research shows that most suspensions result from non-violent behaviors — not felonies or seriously aggressive behaviors.
Another irony in all of this is that school suspensions and in-school arrests are increasing at the same time that there has been a national push to make teachers accountable in the wake of what has been referred to as high-stakes testing. It has been said by some that teachers – and principals – prefer to suspend or expel students than risk having their test scores marred by low-performing students.
According to John Deasy, who heads the Los Angeles Unified School District, harsh school disciplinary policies are the main reason why tens of thousands of students of color across the U.S. — most of them from poverty backgrounds — eventually land behind bars. Deasy, at a symposium of national journalists recently at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, blamed zero tolerance policies in high schools for what he said was a skewed approach to education and juvenile justice.
“Zero tolerance really means zero common sense,” he told the journalists.
Too many school districts around the country still main zero tolerance policies. However, as long as we use zero-tolerance discipline, bring police officers into schools to make arrests and rely on law enforcement rather than teachers and administrators to handle minor school misconduct, more children — and particularly more minority and at-risk students — will be guided out the schoolhouse door and directly into the criminal justice system.
Neither our students nor our nation can stand by and allow school discipline to be an excuse for criminalizing our youth.