Are These Post-Columbine Measures Putting Minority Students on the Fast Track to the Prison System?
As a high school principal, Mel Riddile faced a dilemma.
One of his students had been referred to him after being found with a weapon on school grounds.
It was an honest mistake, Riddile said. The student had taken his backpack with him on a weekend camping trip. A hunting knife, which the student had tucked into the front pocket of his bag for the trip, remained there when he returned to school on Monday. As he walked through the hallway, it fell out of his bag.
Fortunately for Riddile, his district allowed him disciplinary discretion. The student had to serve a brief suspension and was back in the classroom by the end of the week.
But in many high schools across the country, students caught with weapons or drugs on campus or who are involved in fights are subject to zero tolerance policies—which pull them out of the classroom and siphon them into the legal system.
Instituted largely as a reaction to the 1999 Columbine shooting, zero tolerance policies remove situational discretion from school officials and institute mandated minimum penalties that often include police involvement for drug, weapon and violence offenses on school grounds.
Education activists and researchers nationwide have decried these stringent policies as a major contributor to the prison pipeline—a disturbing trend that charts more children not graduating from high school and instead becoming caught up in the legal system.
“These policies are yanking these children out of classrooms and funneling them into the criminal justice system, into prisons,” said Zorka Karanxha, a researcher at the University of Southern Florida who has studied the causes and impact of the prison pipeline.
“And once a child is in the system, the opportunity is lost. Once you’re there, you’re there, and even once you get out of prison, you have a record, and people won’t hire you.”
These strict policies are also responsible for conditioning students—especially in majority-minority schools, which are more likely to employ the use of metal detectors and in-school police officers—to distrust police, Karanxha said.
While it’s impossible to accurately measure the full scope of zero tolerance policies—some have been written into state legislatures, others implemented at the school district level by local school boards—statistics from many states show these policies disproportionately harming students of color.
A 2008 study in Florida found that Black students were two and half more times likely to be referred to the judicial system.
Those studies also found Black students more likely than whites to be suspended, expelled and sentenced to jail time for infractions that take place on school grounds.
And harsher discipline has been linked to a higher rate of high school dropouts who, in turn, are more likely to become incarcerated. While Black students make up just 16% of the nation’s population, they account for 45% of juvenile arrests.
“Would it matter to people if we had 45% of white males in prison? Would that matter?”, Karanxha said. “It’s this notion of how we value life differently.”
Karanxha and others who have studied the pipeline emphasized that schools need to move away from punishment models and focus more on correcting student behavior.
“Essentially, they are throwing these kids into the criminal justice system,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Some of these kids are having to appear in court for pushing and shoving in the schoolyard and for writing on desks. Are those really things that should have criminal consequences?”
The problem with zero tolerance policies is twofold, Lieberman said. In some cases, police are overruling the discretion of teachers and principals and carting students off to court dates. In other cases, she said, the schools tie their own hands with harsh policies that lead to a spike in suspensions.
New York City schools handed out 73,441 suspensions during the 2010-2011 school year—a more than 130% increase in suspensions from the 2002-2003 school year, according to the Department of Education.
The data go on to show that, while accounting for just 30% of enrollment in NYC schools, Black students accounted for more than 50% of the suspensions.
“The statistics show suspensions and expulsions are completely lopsided and heavily impacted students of color,” Lieberman said.
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Attorney General’s office launched the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, a federal effort to combat graduation rate disparities caused by disproportionate enforcement of school discipline policies.
“Maintaining safe and supportive school climates is absolutely critical, and we are concerned about the rising rates and disparities in discipline in our nation’s schools,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said then in a statement.
The initiative pledged to further examine the role of zero tolerance policies in the prison pipeline and provide school districts and state legislatures with information about the impact of these policies on graduation and incarceration rates.
“Ensuring that our educational system is a doorway to opportunity—and not a point of entry to our criminal justice system—is a critical, and achievable, goal,” Attorney General Eric Holder added.
In the year since the initiative was instituted, it’s main focus has been collecting uniform data sets on school discipline from each state and funding studies on school discipline practices.
In addition to national efforts, researchers note that some states—including Florida—have already begun to address the role of zero tolerance policies in the prison pipeline.
The Sunshine State amended its zero tolerance policy in 2009, at the urging of then-Gov. Charlie Crist and the state legislature.
“They outlined in the new policy that minor fights and talking back to teachers and being loud are not crimes,” Karanxha said. “These are disruptions. They are inappropriate, but they’re not criminal.”
By the end of the 2010-11 school year, Florida schools were reporting an 11% drop in school-based arrests and a 10% drop in juvenile crime.
Educators have long called for these walk backs, arguing that mandatory punishments and judicial referrals take the necessary case-by-case discretion away from local principals and school boards.
Riddile spent decades as a high school principal at J.E.B. Stuart High School in Fairfax County, VA and T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA and, in 2006, was named the National High School Principal of the Year.
Now working as the associate director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, Riddile argues the most important elements of school discipline are case-by-case discretion and keeping students in the classroom.
“The whole idea is to craft policies that deter negative behavior, not ones that aim to punish bad behavior,” Riddile said.
One of the underlying problems with many zero tolerance policies, Riddile said, is that they come with mandated out-of-school suspensions. Instead, schools should opt for community service and in-school suspensions when possible.
“The goal should be to avoid denying any student access to education,” he said.