By Christopher Zoukis
The Obama administration has taken more steps to improve an atmosphere of fairness and equity and to support a climate of achievement for public school students. New materials to be used as tools by educators were released in September as part of continuing effort to urge schools to abandon controversial, harsh "zero-tolerance" punishment policies for students that commit minor and major offenses.
These policies have funnelled countless kids -- a disproportionate number of them black and Hispanic -- into the juvenile justice system, and have been tied to the "school-to-prison" pipeline contributing to mass incarceration in the U.S.
To help mitigate these issues, the Departments of Education and Justice released new recommendations and guidelines for school resource officers and student discipline. Both departments encourage the utilization of the SECURe rubric, which outlines five steps of action. SECURe stands for Safe, School-based Enforcement through Collaboration, Understanding and Respect.
In 2013-2014 at least 30 percent of schools had at least one school resource officer (SRO), and 11 percent had one law enforcement officer not designated as an SRO. The presence of officers is ostensibly to keep schools and children safe, however a 2011 study published in Justice Quarterly states that the increased use of police in schools increases referrals to law enforcement for minor transgressions, and increases harsh responses to minor disciplinary issues. When minor issues are criminalized, teachers, administration and other staff step away from disciplinary responsibilities and rely on SROs and police.
The new recommendations call for limited involvement by officers in discipline matters, and training for teachers and staff aimed discouraging them from calling in officers for nonviolent issues. At the same time, training is recommended for SROs in the areas of child development and conflict de-escalation. The goal is not to take SROs out of schools, but to have them operate under new guidelines that more sharply define their roles, in an effort to foster greater trust between law enforcement the community.
This is a vital overhaul of the system, considering there are more than 17,000 school resource officers working in schools across the country. SRO programs and goals need to be clearly defined, and mutual understandings of roles should be developed between schools and law enforcement. This ensures appropriate disciplinary actions are taken, rather than unnecessarily escalated. Under the guidelines, schools and teachers are being urged to move away from relying on officers to administer discipline.
Zero tolerance policies are disruptive to classrooms, schools, and can affect students' educational futures if they are suspended or expelled. According to civil rights data collected in 2011-2012, black students were three times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled from school. Between 2013-2015 black students were twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement or arrested compared to their white peers. The difference in treatment is so stark that the Education and Justice departments issued a letter to school districts stating that racial discrimination in school discipline is a definitive problem. Zero-tolerance policies are not meted out evenly for the same infractions. Some punishments result in arrests, which can severely limit future opportunities and have been correlated with lower academic achievement and increased incidence of repeat offenses.
The U.S. needs to move away from zero tolerance policies in the classroom, and toward other forms of discipline which better foster a supportive learning environment, and which do not result in the expulsion or suspension of students. Students should not face expulsion or jail time for nonviolent offenses, which can send them into the school-to-prison pipeline. If schools embrace these new guidelines and resources, it is a step in the right direction to help create brighter futures for public school students, to alleviate strain on the justice system and to reduce mass incarceration.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com