Why Zero Tolerance is Compromising Students’ Futures

Image:  US News

Image: US News

Editor’s Note: This featured article was written by 16-year-old Sonel Cutler from Virginia, USA

In 2014, Krystin Polk, a 13-year-old student with autism in Mississippi, ran away from her school twice in one day. She was apprehended by her School Resource Officer, placed in handcuffs, and spent 24 hours at the county detention facility, away from her family. Her experience wasn’t a rare one.

These harsh punishments for minor infractions are due, in part, to the Zero Tolerance Policy in place in schools today. The policy eliminates undesirable behavior by separating students from their learning environment with suspension or expulsion, a practice called exclusionary discipline.

However, countless studies prove that this type of system in place today not only disproportionately affects people of color, but also unnecessarily gets students involved in the justice system and has a long lasting effect on their future.

This path from school to the justice system after a disciplinary problem is known as the school-to-prison pipeline, and every day it is being extended as Zero Tolerance Policies become harsher and schools’ lack of resources increase, which leads to a disproportionate number of people of color being incarcerated.

Schools use exclusionary discipline in an attempt to deter bad behavior in other students, to “teach them a lesson” as a part of their Zero Tolerance Policies. In fact, they are doing quite the opposite; Exclusionary discipline isolates students and excludes them from learning opportunities. In January, President Trump’s Department of Education rescinded the School Discipline Guidelines, a template that laid out alternatives to exclusionary discipline. “Without that guidance, schools don’t have the tools and ideas that they need to move forward and make sure that all kids [...] have the opportunities that they need,” explained Kayla Patrick, a policy analyst for the Education Trust, a nonprofit that works to help minorities receive educational achievement.

U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, refuses to acknowledge that race plays a role in school discipline. However, In Spokane, WA, a school district reported that 20% of it’s expulsions in 2009 were of African American students, however they made up only 4% of the school district. One in five African American male students are suspended from school at least once during a school year, which is 3.5 times more than the rate of white students, according to a study done by the University of Indiana, Bloomington.

This discrepancy is due, in part, to American schools’ low teacher diversity rate. The majority of American teachers are white females, but research shows that students receive higher standardized test scores when they learn under a same-race teacher. In a study done by the Institute of Labor Economics, “assigning a black male to a black teacher in the third, fourth, or fifth grades significantly reduces the probability that he drops out of high school.”

This absence of teacher diversity can then be attributed to a general lack or resources in underprivileged communities, ranging from a lack of good funding to basic quality of education. Last February, West Virginia teachers left the classroom to protest their low salaries and poor funding. Many teachers across the country in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, states that voted for Trump in 2016, followed suit.

A study in Virginia found that high poverty schools have teachers with less experience, less instructional materials, and less access to high level courses. As a result, we see lower attendance, performance, and graduation rates. “Quality education should be the foundation for future success, no matter what a student decides to do,” said Patrick, addressing how these discrepancies affect students’ futures.

A Department of Justice report done in 2016 states that incarcerated individuals “without a high school diploma have the highest recidivism rates (60 percent). Only 16 percent of state prisoners have a high school diploma. Over 80 percent of prisoners are high school dropouts. Sub par education drives incarceration rates; It’s a direct relationship.

Nearly 70 percent of prisoners without a high school diploma have a learning disability, problems the prison system isn’t equipped to treat. Many of these disabilities have never been treated. Students and families in low-income neighborhoods rarely receive access to good mental health care.

A report done by The Center for Civil Rights Remedies found that people that suffer from mental health problems are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, thus limiting these students’ access to education, students that already have very limited access. As a result, they are more likely to become involved in the justice system. This process repeats itself, beginning a cycle that schools struggle to break.

Zero Tolerance was introduced in order to curb the presence of guns and drugs in schools. And, yes, to some extent, it has done that. However, the current Zero Tolerance Policy fails to evaluate each situation specifically. Administrators harshly discipline students regardless of if they are acting in self-defense, if the student has a history of disciplinary problems, or if the student’s actions were accidental or out of ignorance.

Switching out the Zero Tolerance Policy with a restorative justice or Positive Behavior Intervention and Support system would offer students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. A study done at the University of Chicago demonstrates the positive impact of these practices. In 2009, Chicago’s school district implemented the Culture of Calm initiative, in which students mediate disputes among themselves, with increased access to counselors and mental health resources. Over the course of one year, high school suspension rates dropped from 23 percent to 16 percent, and students and teachers alike said the school felt safer.

Without proper funding and resources, schools in underserved communities will continue to fall short in providing students the quality education that helps them succeed.

Without teacher diversity and proper training, minority students will continue to be disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.

Without a more modern approach to discipline, students across the United States will continue to be isolated and disconnected from their learning environment as a result of Zero Tolerance.

You may not be a lawmaker, but going to school board meetings, talking with your legislators, and calling out unfair, biased treatment of peers still makes a difference.

Implementing policies that encourage students to learn and grow with positive reinforcement is proven to result in safer schools and more opportunities for students. Exclusionary discipline is antiquated and has a negative impact on students’ futures. We can do better for our country’s students.