This blog was written with my colleague Eustace Thompson. It is based on a chapter we wrote for Assault on Kids and Teachers: Countering privatization, deficit ideologies and standardization of U.S. schools to be published by Peter Lang.
A video, taken by a student in a Columbia, South Carolina high school, shows a police officer grabbing a female student by the neck and flipping her backward and then dragging her across the floor. The teenage girl is black. The police officer, a deputy in the local sheriff's department, is white. The girl's "crime" was illegal use of cellphone and refusing to leave the classroom voluntarily. Her cellphone use and failure to leave the room violated the school's zero-tolerance discipline policy and triggered police involvement. The girl, and a male student who came to her assistance, were both arrested and charged with disturbing the piece.
The police officer in the incident joined the sheriff's department in 2004. Since 2008 he has been a "school resource officer." This is not the first time this officer has been involved in questionable behavior. In 2007 he was charged with manhandling a man and woman suspected of making too much noise near their home and according to a 2013 lawsuit filed against the officer and the school district, he "unfairly and recklessly targets African-American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity."
The police officer has been fired. But the problem is not just one rogue cop.
Police in schools and treating African-American and Latino students as criminals is not a uniquely South Carolina phenomenon. Since 1998, security guards in New York City schools are a division of the police department. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, "At the start of the 2008-2009 school year there were 5,055 school safety agents (SSAs) and 191 police officers in New York City's public schools. These numbers would make the NYPD's School Safety Division the fifth largest police force in the country." New York City has twice as many SSAs per student than the city of Houston has police officers per citizen.
The push for zero-tolerance policies in schools during the 1990s was feed by a media generated frenzy and fear of pathological "super-predators" and random youth violence starting with a 1989 attack by a supposed "wolf pack" of black and Latino teenagers on a lone female jogger in New York City's Central Park. The "Central Park Five" were all convicted of rape and assault and then exonerated years later when evidence emerged proving that they did not commit the attack. Zero-tolerance has feed on White fears and racism in American society ever since.
Media news reportage perpetuates stereotypes held by Whites that they live under siege and are in constant danger of assault by minority group members. While reality is much different from public perception that does not stop the demonization of black and Latino youth. The Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reported that between 1994 and 2011 murders committed by adolescents aged 10 to 17 actually declined by approximately two-thirds.
Police in schools and zero-tolerance policies started to be routinely enforced in public schools after federal legislation in 1994 required states to expel students who brought a firearm to school. A 1999 article in USA Today estimated that 87% of all schools in the United States had instituted zero-tolerance policies for drug possession and 91% for weapons. These policies have always fell hardest on African-American and Latino students, especially males.
Schools and districts applied zero-tolerance standards for student "misconduct" for possession of any type of potential or imagined weapon and drugs, including prescription or over-the-counter medications. A range of previously tolerated misbehaviors soon became grounds for severe disciplinary action including expulsion as zero-tolerance were employed inexplicably. For example, students were suspended or expelled from school for possessing "Midol, Tylenol, Alka Seltzer, cough drops and Scope mouthwash" -- and for wearing "Halloween costumes that included paper swords and fake spiked knuckles, as well as for possessing rubber bands, slingshots and toy guns -- all violations of anti-weapons policies."
Zero-tolerance policies were implemented in schools despite research showing that resultant suspensions were detrimental to both a student's emotional and academic growth (Bowditch 1993; Skiba 2000). One study found that suspensions resulting from zero-tolerance policies actually reinforced student behaviors they were supposed to eliminate leading to further suspensions. Another study found that when suspended from school male teenagers were increasingly exposed to influences that virtually ensured further problems in schools and with the police. Other studies have documented the connection between zero-tolerance policies and higher school drop out rates.
Instead of reducing reported student disciplinary misconduct, zero-tolerance policies in schools had the opposite effect. The number of student violations, especially those attributed to African-American and Latino students, increased. New York City doubled its suspension rate between 2002 and 2008. These suspensions contributed to increased rates of absenteeism and lateness, lower passing rates in classes and on standardized examinations, and decreased graduation rates.
The punitive results of zero-tolerance policies were also evident in elementary schools where younger children and their families were being prepared for entry into the school-to-prison pipeline. In New York City, the suspension of elementary school students between the ages of 4 and 10 was up over 75% percent between 2001 and 2010.
To stem this epidemic of suspensions of young children, since April 2015 New York City school principals must get written approval from the Department of Education before suspending students in grades kindergarten through third. However it continues unabated in charter schools where public officials apparently ignore unjust disciplinary codes and the high rate of suspension from school for even the youngest children.
South Carolina was a message.
Racism must stop.
Treat students as human beings.
Zero-tolerance is a failure.
Get cops out of classrooms.