Zero-Tolerance Policy Creates a School-to-Prison Pipeline
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Interview by Jacob Simas
EDITOR’S NOTE: Schools across the nation are increasingly adopting punitive measures as a way to control and deter violence and other disruptive behaviors. These “zero-tolerance” policies can encompass anything from metal detectors to increased police presence on school campuses to the handing out of expulsions and suspensions. But a rising tide of voices say that zero-tolerance policies are ineffective, and in fact only succeed in making matters worse by creating a “school and prison pipeline.”
Former NAM managing editor Annette Fuentes is the author of a new book, Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes the Jail House, published by Verso. The book explores the reasons zero-tolerance policies have grown and investigates the impact those policies are having on students. She was interviewed by NAM associate editor Jacob Simas.
JS: We’ve witnessed a trend over the last 20 years or so, of schools embracing security and punishment as a means to control student behavior. Would it be safe to assume, then, that our schools are not as safe as they used to be?
AF: It would be very inaccurate [to say that]. Schools today are among the safest places for children to be, and that includes their homes and their neighborhoods. We know, the experts know, that the level of violence in our public schools is among the lowest level it’s been in in about 20 years. School violence peaked in the early ‘90s. Data from the National Center on School Violence… show clearly that incidents of violence in schools have been going down. And this parallels crime in general, in the wider society. So schools are in almost all cases the safest places for kids to be. That doesn’t mean that there are not incidents of school violence, but they have been so blown out of proportion that most people walk around thinking that another Columbine is just around the corner.
JS: So why the hysteria around violence? Now, you mentioned Columbine, but certainly the hysteria is due to more than just one isolated incident.
AF: Columbine happened in 1999, but in fact there had been a handful — maybe four or five – of very high-profile school shootings in the years preceding Columbine. There was one in Perduka, Kentucky; a student who shot classmates at a prayer group up in Springfield, Orgeon; a young man who shot and killed his parents and then went to school with his gun and shot at folks. There were several that were very high profile. So people already were kind of primed for school violence.
Now, remember, these shootings were very high profile; they claimed multiple victims. But compared to how many kids are killed every day in acts of violence in their own homes, in their own neighborhoods, it just doesn’t even compare. But these were crimes that had shocked people, and that made it appear that schools were violent. And it fit with the narrative of violent children, violent schools that had been building since the 1980s.
You know, we’ve been a society afraid of crime since, really, the Reagan administration and perhaps before. But the war on drugs led to the war on kids, and the increasing prison-like conditions for juveniles in general. So we started cracking down on kids in schools and it’s just led to a whole raft of policies and practices that have made schools more and more like prisons.
My book talks about everything, from the increased presence of police, the increased use of drug-sniffing dogs, of drug testing in schools — and I’m not even talking urban schools, I’m talking about schools in suburban New Jersey or suburban Oregon — where parents are afraid that their kids are doing drugs and are out of control. We are clamping down on kids with other high tech security and surveillance equipment at a time of scarce school resources. School districts are spending money on the surveillance hardware of the prison state.
JS: Many have criticized zero tolerance policies for creating a “school-to-prison pipeline.” Does that argument have any teeth, and if so, could you paint us a picture of how such a scenario might play out?
AF: It’s really a very, very ugly scenario. But we know, and the education and legal researchers who have been looking at this issue for two, maybe three decades have found, that zero tolerance policies that put kids at risk of suspension, and then lead to kids dropping out, those (in turn) put them at risk of falling into the prison pipeline.
So we know that high percentages of black and Latino kids have high rates of drop out from schools, and we know that a high percentage of the prison population is comprised of black and Latino men in particular, although young women are increasingly in that scenario. But researchers like Russell Skiba — who was one of the first to do research on suspensions and look at the racial component of it — they’ve shown how increasing the number of suspensions increases the risks of the most vulnerable students to being pushed out of school.
Now, the other part of this equation is that schools and teachers are under incredible pressure, especially with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) — which was former President George W. Bush’s signature education bill. What NCLB did was to put incredible pressure to achieve unrealistic levels of achievement in English and math from students who were starting at a very low level, and were expected each year to increase their English and math skills really unrealistically.
Teachers and schools were not given the resources to make these changes to increase the achievement levels, and so for a lot of teachers — and I heard this time and again during the course of my two years of reporting — teachers were under pressure to get the lowest-achieving students out of their classrooms. You get rid of the lower achievers, and you automatically have a class whose collective achievement level is raised. So those kids who are the most challenged, the lowest achievers, are those who need the most resources. But in resource-starved classrooms, they’re not getting it. In some cases, sadly, it’s easier to just suspend them because they’re trouble and because the teacher doesn’t have the wherewithal to deal with that student one-on-one. And unfortunately, in a time of budget cuts all over the country, the fear is that this is just being worsened because suspension becomes a quick fix for kids who are the most challenging to deal with.
JS: Teachers have an incredibly tough job. I can imagine a scenario where a teacher may have 30 or 40 students in the classroom, but it just takes one or two students with behavioral issues to disrupt the whole learning environment. Isn’t one student getting suspended or expelled preferable to a whole classroom not being able to learn?
Well, that would be fine if it were just one student, but the numbers are staggering. I looked at the data on suspensions — just the absolute numbers on how many kids are suspended – and it’s amazing. Let’s take Texas, George Bush’s home state, where he perfected some of the component pieces of NCLB. Last year, Texas had 1.6 million suspensions. Now, that could be the same students getting multiple suspensions, but in one state, to have 1.6 million disruptions of an education, that is significant. So it isn’t one student being suspended; it is most likely multiple students. And even if there are a handful of troublemakers, these are kids who really require extra help and extra assistance, and not being pushed aside. Because by the 8th grade, if a child has already experienced a suspension, it is very likely that that kid will not finish high school. Studies that have been done over and over again in different parts of the county are bearing this out.
The other thing is that this school-to-prison pipeline is a two-way valve, I’ve discovered. A lot of the leading legal and education researchers talk about that — about how the failing school system puts kids at risk of falling into the juvenile justice system, or the adult criminal justice system. But what I discovered was that the criminal justice system is flowing into a school. That’s why I looked at policing, the increased use of surveillance technology in schools. And I’m talking about schools in urban and even affluent school districts. I went to Columbine high school in 2006. I visited with the principal and talked about what he had done in the school to make it safer. Columbine High is in an affluent suburban enclave outside Denver, and these issues the schools faces, the security, zero tolerance, are everywhere in the country. While black and Latino students are most at risk for falling into the pipeline, all students, I think, are being treated as suspects. We’ve got to be a public school system that can provide for the range of students we have.
JS: You’re hinting at my next question. These zero tolerance policies have been on the rise, but there are also signs that the tide may be shifting. You offer some case studies of schools that have been using alternative methods to achieve school safety. Can you talk about some of those alternatives?
AF: Well, this was the last chapter in my book and it’s called Alternatives to the Lockdown Model, and of course it’s a sort of a happy ending to my book because I don’t want to dump all this stuff on folks and not give them some reason to be hopeful. Because also, there is a vibrant, active and growing movement around the country, among legal advocates for young people and educators. There’s a campaign called Dignity in Schools, a national campaign with various member coalitions, including groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union. The Advancement Project, which is in Washington, has done some groundbreaking work on zero tolerance and the school-to-prison pipeline. These folks are doing great work.
Education, clearly, is a key issue in this country, even if it has been pushed on the back burner by the budget deficit and the economic crisis. Education is part of the whole scenario of what needs to be reformed in this country. So the Dignity in Schools campaign and other education activists and children’s advocates are saying we want this new education law to include in it provisions that support positive behavioral interventions in school, which is a completely new paradigm. It is a paradigm that says we will not punish kids, we will not focus on disciple and punishment, but rather on rewarding good behaviors and supporting kids for making strides in changed behaviors and achievement. It’s really a turning of the paradigm on its head and treating kids as young people who do make mistakes.
And again, I can’t help but go back to my own experience as a kid. Children are not more violent than they were 30 to 40 years ago. We may have had more high-profile gun incidents, but let’s not forget that we are a society that today has more guns flowing freely than it did 30 or 40 years ago.
Kids are supposed to make mistakes. Schools are supposed to be places where they are taught the right ways to behave and the right ways to interact with other kids and adults. So if we can’t use schools as a place to teach them how to behave, how to learn from their mistakes, then we have really failed them as a society.
To read more about zero tolerance from a student’s perspective, click here: http://publisher.namx.org/mt.cgi?__mode=view&_type=entry&id=6315&blog_id=19
Annette Fuentes is also an editor at the Bay Citizen, a non-profit news service in San Francisco.
New America Media is an Atlantic grantee.