Schools Against Kids: ‘Zero Tolerance’ Policies Criminalize Students, Youth of Color Hardest Hit

Zita Allen Feb 4, 2004

A 10-year-old girl arrested for throwing crayons, paper and other art supplies around an empty classroom now has a Legal Aid defense attorney in what started as a school disciplinary case but quickly found its way into the juvenile justice system. This scenario is unfolding in Palm Beach, Florida, but education and civil rights advocates say it could happen here, thanks to the zero-tolerance school disciplinary policies being implemented by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

In school district after school district, an inflexible and unthinking zero-tolerance approach to an exaggerated juvenile crime problem is derailing the educational process,” says Judith Browne, senior attorney for the Washington-based civil rights group the Advancement Project. “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.”

Brown researched and authored the 2003 report “Derailed: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track” detailing the Advancement Project’s findings of zero-tolerance’s impact in cities like Houston, Palm Beach, Denver, and Chicago. The report was a follow-up to an earlier study in collaboration with the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University entitled “Opportunities Suspended: The Devastating Consequence of Zero-Tolerance and School Discipline.”

Both studies maintain that zero-tolerance policies “are derailing students from an academic track in schools to a future in the juvenile justice system” and that African-American, Latino and disabled children are often the ones who “bear the brunt of the consequences of these policies.”

New York, the largest school system in the country, was not included in these studies but it was not, Brown says, for lack of interest.

“The data was not available. I’m a New Yorker and went to public school in New York, and I know that the role of police in public schools has changed over the years. In New York there is this history of excessive use of force in communities of color, and if you can’t trust the police on the street and you put them in the schools there are going to be problems,” Brown adds.

“The zero-tolerance approach to school discipline is the result of a mid-1980s spike in juvenile crime rates [that] gave birth to the ‘superpredator’ theory, which held that America was under assault by a generation of brutally amoral young people, and that only the abandonment of ‘soft’ educational and rehabilitative approaches in favor of strict and unrelenting discipline – a zero-tolerance approach – could end the plague,” according to the Advancement Project.

The Project insists that the creation of this schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track has damaged a generation of children – particularly children of color – by criminalizing trivial offenses, pushing children out of the school system into the juvenile justice system and introducing prison-like security environments, with drug-sniffing dogs, metal detectors and uniformed law enforcement personnel.

In Miami-Dade schools there was a 300% jump in arrests between 1999 and 2001. In Houston, Baltimore and Palm Beach, there was a similar trend. Many of the arrests were for minor offenses that included talking during assembly and arguing (not fighting) with another student. Some arrests border on the absurd. For example, in New Jersey two elementary school boys were arrested and charged with terrorism for playing cops and robbers with paper guns.

Of course, Brown says, students involved in “truly criminal behavior such as murder, serious violence, or the sale or possession of illicit drugs, should be subjected to criminal charges – as they were even before zero tolerance became the watchword.” But statistically, youth violence has declined and schools remain the safest places for children. Nonfatal crimes against children dropped by 44 percent, and serious violent crimes (rape, sexual assault, robbery or aggravated assault) declined 43 percent between 1999 and 2001.

In addition to railroading kids into the juvenile justice system, zero tolerance policies are also pushing them out of the school system in large numbers. A recent report by the Office of Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum and Advocates for Children (AFC), a New York nonprofit group, found that more than 160,000 high-school-age students were discharged between the 1997 and 2001. More than 55,000 were discharged in the 2000-2001 school year alone.

In fact, at certain schools, more kids were discharged than received their diplomas.
Gotbaum and the AFC suggest that an analysis of the data they’ve compiled is needed in order to understand the extent of the problem and craft appropriate solutions. The Advancement Project and the Harvard University Civil Rights Project determined that they had enough data to make recommendations for alternatives and adjustments to zero tolerance policies.

In fact, the Advancement Project calls for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights to monitor schools receiving federal aid for possible denial of students’ civil rights. It is also necessary to track data on the race and disability status of affected children, conduct compliance reviews and investigations to ensure that children are not discriminated against in the adoption or application of disciplinary policies, and more. States are also urged to pass legislation permitting advocates to represent students in due process hearings, among other things.

Last but certainly not least on their list is a recommendation for greater involvement by parents, school reform and civil rights groups insisting that “all policies and procedures reflect fair process and sound principles based on schooling goals rather than crime-fighting strategies.”
In many cases, Brown says, alternative steps can be taken before students are put on the track that leads them from schoolhouse to jailhouse the way zero tolerance policies are prone to do. Says Brown: “This runaway train must be stopped.”

This article was originally printed in the Amsterdam News.

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