Zero Tolerance Public School Policies Are Pre-Criminalizing Black and Brown Children

The United States of America makes up 5 percent of the world’s population, but houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners.

No country in the world, not a dictatorship or a communist, Islamic or facist country anywhere on Earth imprisons more of its citizens than America.

In this so-called “Land of the Free” 1 in 31 adults is currently behind bars, on probation or on parole, and that is the aggregate data. Break that down by race and the numbers are beyond ridiculous. We already know a black man in America is far more likely to die a felon than a college graduate.

How, in a supposedly “developed” nation, can it be considered smart public policy to spend more of our tax dollars incarcerating someone when it is far cheaper to educate them?  That is the infuriating, saddening, frustrating question we must consider when we examine the recent data released by the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments in their report, Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study on How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement.

The six-year study looked at the effect of zero tolerance policies in Texas public schools and found:

  • One million students were suspended or expelled, and those students who were disciplined this way were also more likely to drop out or have to repeat a grade.
  • 83 percent of black males had at least one disciplinary action on their record which ended with them being removed from school compared to 59 percent of white males. 70 percent of black female students and 37 percent of white female students had been disciplined. ( White females were often not disciplined for identical offenses committed by black females.)
  • 15 percent of students who were disciplined with suspensions or expulsions had been so 11 times or more.
  • In Texas, as in the rest of the country, black and Latino students were punished at higher rates than their non-black and Latino classmates.
  • 97 percent of the disciplinary actions were a result of school administration and staff exercising their discretionary power to punish students. Just 3 percent of the expulsions and suspensions were actually mandated by Texas state law.

Funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Open Society Foundations, this study also found that when students are suspended or expelled, the likelihood that they will repeat a grade, not graduate or become involved in the juvenile justice system, increases significantly. African American students and children with particular educational disabilities who qualify for special education were suspended and expelled at especially high rates.

Let us all be clear about what these data mean. Thousands of these kids are headed for Texas jail beds — and they will become a part of the growing American slave labor force that builds furniture, manufactures defense department supplies and provides other production tasks for which they will (legally) be paid pennies per day. These  jobs will not be available to American children who do manage to navigate the public education system and earn a diploma, because it is more profitable to get a prisoner to do them.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement last week, as many critics of zero-tolerance policies have argued over the years, that harsh school discipline doesn’t deter bad behavior, it discourages students from staying in school and makes the work of educating U.S. kids that much harder.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder referred to the report as a “wake-up call.”

Read the full story about the school discipline study at Education Week.

What do you think?

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