By Richard Muhammad

CHICAGO ( – Prison Reform Inc., a non-profit devoted to serving those behind bars, ex-offenders and their families, recently put the spotlight on a dangerous schoolhouse to jailhouse track that often ensnares youth and leads to prison.

The public school system’s “zero tolerance” policies, heavy-handed discipline for often trivial offenses, are pushing children out of classrooms and into contacts with police officers and the courts, said speakers during the forum. Youth caught in this cycle often get trapped in the criminal justice system and never get out, they added.

Ja’eisha Scott, a 5-year-old from St. Petersburg, Fla., could be the poster child for the out-of-control policies. In a March 2005 incident that was videotaped and widely broadcast, the little girl has a temper tantrum in a school administrator’s office, after her teacher removes her from a classroom. Police are called. The distraught child has her hands handcuffed behind her back and is put in the back of a police cruiser for three hours. The child’s mother arrives at the school, but is not allowed to touch or do anything to comfort her crying daughter.


“Our children are being criminalized at the age of five. They are being left to think they are criminals with no future,” said guest speaker Judith Browne, co-director of the Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project, during the forum at the Center for Inner City Studies. Ms. Browne shared the findings of an Advancement Project report, “Education On Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track,” which documents the negative results of zero tolerance.

Enacted to combat serious problems, like guns in schools, today the arrest, expulsion and suspension policies apply to everything from talking back to teachers, to squabbles between 7-year-olds to little girls carrying scissors for art projects.

In the battle of two 7-year-olds, a child was arrested, handcuffed and put in a jail cell. The boy’s “crime” was scratching a police officer that broke up the fight, Ms. Browne informed.

Once courts are introduced, things can get complicated and put students in difficult situations: Students may end up on probation, which is tied to school attendance. But if children are already behind because of suspensions, they can get frustrated and drop out of school–curtailing their education and violating probation at the same time, she explained.

The frustration of youth was reflected in the testimony of a young man with the Southwest Youth Collaborative, during the forum. “Some people feel safer on the streets than in school,” he said.

The high school student talked about how a fight mushroomed into a bigger problem and because of a previous run-in with police, he dropped out of school. But, the young man said he regrets dropping out and wants to get back into classes.

According to the Advancement Project study, Chicago Public School suspensions of elementary school students soared to 20,000 in 2003 and, on average, more than 266 students are suspended from school every day, the report said.

Half of all those arrested in Chicago schools were Black males, who are only 25 percent of the student population, Ms. Browne noted. Black students commonly get caught in the system for fighting, not carrying weapons, she added.

The Chicago Police Department has refused to give arrest data for 2004, despite having given it a previous year, said Ms. Browne. “They know if we start to put the numbers out there, the people are going to say you have to stop this process,” argued the attorney.

Black students across the country are also disproportionate victims of zero tolerance policies, and much more likely to be suspended, expelled and prosecuted. Numbers for Latino students are high, but skewed because Latinos are often classified as White by school systems, Ms. Browne explained.

The Advancement Project, which does legal work to combat the problem, sees community organizing as the solution. “We need to turn the outrage into action,” Ms. Browne insisted.

The Advancement Project currently partners with the Southwest Youth Collaborative, Blocks Together and the Children and Family Justice Center in Chicago.

Though most Chicago cases are thrown out of court, the policies remain a serious problem–and not all cases are thrown out. Farkhanda Muhammad, 18, told the audience of a run-in with a substitute teacher in high school that resulted in a trial and misdemeanor conviction. Her parents had to pay for a lawyer and a fine. Now, two years after the minor incident, the college student is still under court-ordered restrictions.

If her charge had not been reduced to a misdemeanor from a felony, she would have been ineligible for some federal financial aid for college. But, she told other youth, “You can get through this, don’t let anyone stop you.”

“If we can get children off the schoolhouse to jailhouse track, we can make in-roads into keeping people out of the system. What we’re doing now isn’t working,” said Nation of Islam National Prison Reform Minister Abdullah Muhammad, who is also the head of Prison Reform Inc. He convened the forum and invited Ms. Browne to speak. Farkhanda is also his daughter.

Through his organization’s “Got Power!” campaign, Min. Abdullah wants to connect with parents, youth and other Chicago-area organizations fighting the schoolhouse to jailhouse track. He argued teachers need to be paid more, youth should be trained to help deal with their peers, and parents and teachers must work together.

In addition, outdated curriculums must be revamped to actually teach students about themselves and others, he continued, because America’s education system has been poisoned with the teaching of White supremacy and Blacks have been miseducated.

“There is carnage going on in the schools, not just Chicago, but all over America. We haven’t been in this bad a shape since we left the cotton fields,” said Phil Jackson, of the Black Star Project, as members of the audience made comments and asked questions. “What are elected officials doing? Where is the outrage and the organizing effort?” he asked.

Others offered ideas to help counter the schoolhouse to jailhouse track. Suggestions included using peer juries, where students hear cases and judge their peers; “in-school suspensions” to keep troubled students off the streets and in an educational environment; having grandparents serve as hall monitors to help resolve problems; using retired teachers to help train younger teachers to better handle students; and stronger teacher-parent alliances.

Classroom discipline is needed, but must be properly applied by staff and educators that care about students, Min. Abdullah offered. “When the children are under knowledge and love, love disciplines the class.” He thanked the Woods Fund of Chicago and the Nation of Islam for helping to sponsor the Dec. 3 event, and Bro. Joseph 12X for suggesting the topic.