According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Pennsylvania's public schools suspend Latino and African-American students at rates higher than the national average. For those of us in the trenches of it, this comes as no surprise. For months we've watched Governor Tom Corbett and Department of Corrections Secretary John Wetzel trade kids for jail. In the face of an alleged school budget crisis, Corbett is building a $400 million dollar prison just outside of Philadelphia. It is rather clear where Pennsylvania's priorities lie.
Aligning our educational system with the criminal justice system is not a natural occurrence. Whether it's a systematic plan or an unintended consequence of bad policies, the impact is great. For Hispanic students living in Pennsylvania, it's nightmarish. They make up just 8.4 percent of the students in the states public school system yet they account for 14.5 percent of students receiving out of school suspensions. Across the state, Latino students face a 1 in 10 chance of being suspended at least once and they are three times more likely to be suspended than White students. The warning for Latino students is clear; they are bearing a large brunt of school disciplinary action.
Latino students in Pennsylvania's York City School District face the criminalization epidemic like it is a birthright. Between 2011-2012, about 27 percent of Latino students had been suspended at least once. Overall, the district issued 91 suspensions for every 100 students. In York, it seems the slightest misstep could be the first step towards time in prison.
The report attributes much of the problem to zero-tolerance polices that
suspend students for minor infractions like dress code violations and talking back. "These zero tolerance practices have failed to make schools safer and, in the name of discipline, have deprived many young people of their opportunity to learn," said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. Instead of providing a path to success, Pennsylvania schools are relying on damaging tactics to address misbehavior in schools.
Zero-tolerance policies dictate that students can expect more than their share of surveillance and incarceration and less investment in their education. This is evident in York, PA where in a sick twist of irony, the district is discussing a potential increase in the authority of the district's 5 school resource officers (SRO's) in response to ACLU's report. SRO's, another name for a law enforcement officer whose duty station is in a school, are funded by a variety of sources with significant amounts coming from non-district public funds and grants from the state or federal government. The deliberate strangulation and suffocation of public school funding encourages schools to apply a school-policing model by limiting schools' access to adequate funding and resources.
Pennsylvania's public school system is becoming a training ground for a life in prison. This trend does not look to be slowing down. Data from the report shows the out of school suspension rates for Black and Latino students in Pennsylvania were higher than the state average each year between 2009-2012. Breaking the cycle of incarceration in Pennsylvania requires purposeful action by school districts across the state. The report makes several suggestions for schools to consider:
•Developing policies so that students are removed from school only when there is a real and immediate safety threat to the school community.
•Minimize the use of law enforcement in school discipline matters, restricting police involvement to serious criminal matters.
•Embrace alternative strategies that have been demonstrated to improve school climate that promote individualized strategies of positive intervention, rather than punishment.
•Train all security staff members that have contact with students.
ACLU's report demonstrates how school discipline policies profoundly shape the destinies of many of Pennsylvania's Latino and African-American students. The enforcement of zero-tolerance policies marginalizes students of color and has not been shown to improve student behavior. A reasonable approach to challenging the injustices of zero-tolerance policies is addressing school guidelines and procedures that contribute to a culture of punishment. School districts across the country are rethinking the way they do discipline. Pennsylvania must follow suit. If we settle for less, we should expect the state of Pennsylvania to continue building and filling prisons.