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First, Do No Harm

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Kavitha Mediratta

by Kavitha Mediratta

As the country searches for ways to keep students safe in schools, we must ensure that our efforts do not hinder academic success or, worse, push students out of school and into the juvenile justice system.

In the wake of recent school shooting tragedies, a dialogue has reopened about how to keep students safe. Among proposals put forward by the Obama administration and others is an increase in funding for police officers in schools. Research on the impact of police officers in schools is difficult to come by because, historically, police departments have not been required to disclose this data. But reports from students and advocacy groups across the country suggest that schools with law enforcement officers have high numbers of student arrests—not for violence or criminal activity, but for low-level disruptions like refusing to hand over a cell phone or talking back to a teacher. In fact, one study found that, after controlling for poverty factors, schools with law enforcement officers had over five times the average number of disorderly conduct arrests. Earlier this year, Florida’s Department of Justice reported that the vast majority of the 14,000 student arrests in Florida public schools last year stemmed from “bad behavior, not criminal behavior.”

The proliferation of arrests for minor disciplinary problems fuels a “school-to-prison pipeline” with far-reaching consequences. Arrests, and the suspensions that often accompany them, demoralize students, weaken their trust and engagement in school, and put them academically behind and at greater risk of dropout and juvenile justice involvement. An arrest record stays with a child for life and must be noted on college and job applications, regardless of how trivial the precipitating offense. 

Most troubling, these disciplinary approaches disproportionately impact children of color. Nationally, African American students are three and a half times more likely to be suspended than are their white peers. Seventy percent of students arrested or referred to law enforcement are Latino or African American. Some urban school districts routinely suspend more than fifty percent of their black students each year, despite evidence that black students are not acting out more often or more disruptively than their peers.

Fortunately, there are examples of better ways to keep schools safe while fostering positive climates for learning. Last year, lawmakers in Colorado scaled back the state’s post-Columbine shooting laws, saying that they needlessly involved law enforcement in school discipline, unfairly targeted children of color, and defied common sense. And in February, leaders of theDenver police and education departments signed an intergovernmental contract to better define police officers’ and educators’ roles in schools and to emphasize “restorative justice” practices to prevent conflicts from escalating into larger offenses. Leading educators and judicial leaders like the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of School Administrators, theNational Association of State Boards of Education, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges have all launched projects to try to reduce suspensions and school-based arrests, based on a research consensus that contact with juvenile justice systems tends to aggravate, rather than lessen, youth offenses. 

These efforts reflect a growing understanding that what matters most to school safety is a climate of welcome, engagement, structure, and support. As we take steps to avoid another school shooting tragedy, we need to take care to avoid the unintended consequences of added police in schools. A good place to start is by reforming zero tolerance policies to focus on preventative approaches that help to keep children where they belong—in school and on track to graduation, college, and the opportunities for success that they deserve. 

The pendulum seems to be swinging in the right direction, as more voices speak out against zero tolerance policies and an increasing number of school districts implement alternative approaches. But there’s still a long way to go. What do you think it will take to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline?

About the Author: Kavitha Mediratta is a contributing writer to Disrupting the School-to-Prison Pipeline. This book from the Harvard Educational Review examines the way young people are funneled out of school and into the juvenile and justice systems and points toward meaningful and much-needed reforms that can reverse the trend.

Ms. Mediratta is a Programme Executive for Children & Youth at The Atlantic Philanthropies. She leads Atlantic’s grantmaking efforts in the United States to keep students safe and on the path to success by reforming zero tolerance school discipline policies that funnel students out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.