This piece originally ran on The Grio on December 12, 2012.
The school-to-prison pipeline -- or, the system of extreme disciplinary practices that push young people out of school and into the criminal justice system -- is often discussed from the angle of isolated incidents.
In April, for example, a six-year-old Georgia girl named Salecia Johnson was arrested, handcuffed and carted away from school in a squad car after throwing a temper tantrum in her kindergarten class. There's also the story of Mississippi high school senior Cedrico Green, who has spent his childhood in and out of juvenile detention for such infractions as wearing the wrong color socks and being a few minutes late for class. But these cases aren't just isolated incidents. Injustices like these happen with alarming regularity across the country.
Coinciding with the widespread rise of zero tolerance discipline policies, as well as growing school security and police forces, data from the U.S Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights shows that more than 3 million students are now suspended each year and over 100,000 expelled. The vast majority of these punishments are for subjective, discretionary offenses such as "disrespect" or "disruption." Of those arrested or referred to law enforcement, more than 70 percent are African-American or Latino.
This pattern is why the U.S. Justice Department stepped in this past October, filing a lawsuit against Meridian, Miss. officials for systematically incarcerating black children. It's why Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) chaired a congressional hearing this week to explore ways to finally end the harmful, unfair and wholly ineffective school-to-prison pipeline.
One of the most devastating problems with harsh school discipline policies is the harm caused to individual youths, mostly students of color, whose lives are turned upside-down over common adolescent mistakes such as talking back to a teacher (an act which becomes "disorderly conduct") and fighting with their peers ("battery"). Students who are suspended are significantly more likely to be held back, drop out of school, and come into contact with juvenile and criminal justice systems.
Despite knee-jerk reactions from some observers, racial disparities in discipline cannot be explained by differences in behavior. While research shows no evidence that Black and Latino students act out more, it does reveal that they are punished more often and more severely for the same discretionary offenses as their White peers. Rather than giving all of our kids an opportunity to succeed, expelling and criminalizing young people pulls the rug out from underneath them at childhood, steering them away from college or career, and redirecting them on the path of dropping out and prison.
One might think that, for all these unfortunate results, a harsh disciplinary approach must have its benefits. As one common justification goes, there are "good kids" and "bad kids," and the former can only learn if the latter are removed from the classroom. Yet schools with high rates of suspensions and expulsions tend to have lower test scores and lower graduation rates across the entire school. As it turns out, spending an oversized amount of energy on disciplinary matters not only results in expelled children falling behind; it leads to a massive loss in academic learning time for all students.
The tactic, likewise, bodes poorly for school safety. In a 10-year study, the American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force concluded that zero tolerance policies may actually make schools less safe. With increased security presence and over-reliance on police officers to handle routine disciplinary measures, students reported a decline in climate as their schools became less welcoming and more threatening. The ensuing resentment has been shown to undermine teacher-student relationships.
The good news is, there are proven alternatives. Denver and Baltimore have traded out-of-school suspensions for minor infractions with in-school responses, using expulsion only for matters that pose an ongoing threat to safety. Baltimore also introduced a system of more supportive interventions, such as counselors, victim-offender mediation, and programs that give students opportunities to learn leadership skills. The results in both cities have been clear: suspensions and police tickets dropped drastically, while attendance and graduation rates have soared.
We have a choice. We can continue to cling to ineffective policies that lead to isolated children, failing schools, high dropout rates, and jail-bound young people. Or we can implement common-sense discipline that gives students needed support, producing improved graduation rates, higher attendance and safer classrooms. The question is whether we want to "get tough" with extreme discipline or "get smart" in helping our youth dream, achieve and succeed.