(FinalCall.com) – In Philadelphia, Penn., a 10-year-old girl was handcuffed and taken to a police station and held for eight hours because she brought a pair of scissors to school. She used the scissors to work on a school project.
Even though “school officials acknowledged that the young girl was not using the scissors as a weapon or threatening anyone with them, scissors qualified as a potential weapon under state law,” according to the report.
In Port St. Lucie, Fl., a 14-year-old girl was arrested and charged with battery for pouring a carton of chocolate milk on the head of a classmate. The girl explained that she heard that the victim was “talking about her.” Local police stated that they believed “the quickest way to resolve it was to charge her.”
In Wilmington, N.C., a high school student was charged by a sheriff’s deputy for cursing in front of a teacher. Four months after the student went to court, facing the possibility of up to 30 days in jail, prosecutors dropped the charges.
Zero tolerance school discipline policies have become the Pied Piper of the public school system, leading more of our children into the river of juvenile and criminal justice systems. Schools are increasingly relying on police and juvenile courts to be disciplinarians in cases that were once appropriately and sufficiently resolved by teachers, principals and school officials.
These facts were released March 24 in a new report by the Advancement Project, a national racial justice organization, entitled, “Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track.”
“In school district after school district, an inflexible and unthinking zero tolerance approach to an exaggerated juvenile crime problem is derailing the educational process,” said Judith Browne, the group’s acting co-director. “The educational system is starting to look more like the criminal justice system. Acts once handled by a principal or a parent are now being handled by prosecutors and the police.”
The report explains that the terminology was taken from the war on drugs, which responded swiftly and harshly to drug offenders. It was applied to school districts in the 1980s during a juvenile crime wave.
“Congress acted, passing the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which required states to enact laws mandating the expulsion of students found on school property with guns. Most states and school districts reacted by going above and beyond the federal mandate, passing laws and policies that required expulsion or suspension for the possession of all weapons, drugs and other serious violations committed on or off school grounds,” according to the report.
The report says that school districts across the country have teamed up with law enforcement to create this “schoolhouse to jailhouse track” by imposing a “double dose” of punishment–suspensions or expulsions and a trip to the juvenile court–for misconduct that often does not threaten school safety.
“It’s all a part of law enforcement’s suppression initiative,” said Capt. Dennis Muhammad, who runs a program in New York called ENOTA, Educating Neighborhoods to Obey Those in Authority.
“Zero tolerance is code language for no patience, no mercy and no empathy,” he argues. “The school system has failed children, law enforcement has failed, parents have failed and now they want to lock up our children.”
He added, “This couldn’t be done without a mandate from the community who is tired of violent children. Once these labels are put on our children, it’s hard to shake them.”
The report details that zero tolerance, a policy originally designed to address the most serious misconduct, morphed into a “take no prisoners” approach to school discipline issues, an expanded role of law enforcement measures in schools, and the disparate impact of these practices on students of color.
“Our report finds that in the name of school safety, students are being needlessly arrested for non-violent acts,” said Monique Dixon, senior attorney at Advancement Project. “It also finds that while students of all races find themselves on the schoolhouse to jailhouse track, the arrest and referrals to juvenile court fall heaviest on students of color.”
For example, last year in Denver, Black and Latino students were referred to law enforcement at twice and seven times the rates of their White peers, respectively. In Chicago, zero tolerance has grossly impacted Black students. In 2003, Black students were 50 percent of the student population, but accounted for more than 77 percent of arrests in schools.
The disparity is not just in arrests. It mirrors the racial disparity in suspensions and expulsions. While Black students were 51 percent of enrollment in 2002-2003, they were 76 percent of suspensions, almost 78 percent of expulsions.
A closer look of the data showed that, between 1999 and 2003, Black students accounted for 84 percent of the elementary school suspensions. More than half of the students suspended in 2003-2004 were Black boys, by a policy that appears to be targeting Black and Latino youth.
“Thirty percent of a teacher’s time is spent on getting order in the classroom.
“In alternative schools, it rises to 50 percent. Multiply that by days, weeks and months, and ask yourself the question, is it fair to the children who want to learn?” said Capt. Dennis. “The problem is compounded by the fact that our children have zero tolerance for the curriculum they’re getting, that doesn’t teach them to survive in the 20th century, from mostly White female teachers.”
According to the National Education Association, students tend to perform better academically, socially and personally when taught by teachers of their own ethnic group. Yet, only six percent of teachers are Black and five percent are Latino. In more than one-third (38 percent) of American public schools, there is not a single Black or Latino teacher.
According to the report, research has shown that prevention and intervention programs are the most effective methods for addressing school violence and creating a productive learning environment.
Capt. Dennis also works with teachers and law enforcement officers in a program called AT-ONE (Alternative Training Offered for Neighborhood Educators or Enforcement).
“I teach teachers and police how to best relate with young people. I help them learn how to keep young people doing the right thing. Children want to learn, but they don’t want the watered down version of education,” he contends. “Teachers have a difficult job. They have to educate, parent and be social workers. Parents need to do more to help their children do better in school.”
Schools should turn to school-based intervention and prevention programs and stop the schoolhouse to jailhouse track, argues Atty. Dixon.
She concludes, “We must have safe learning environments, but these zero tolerance practices have gone too far. Youth are being treated like criminals for cursing, having a body piercing, and shoving matches. Our juvenile courts should not be called upon to address behavior that could be corrected in schools.”