Scrutiny Intensifies Around Zero Tolerance, School to Prison Pipeline

As suspensions and expulsions continue at an alarming rate across the nation, lawmakers are taking another look at decade-old zero tolerance discipline policies that are doing more harm than good.

Civil rights advocates have long called out harsh disciplinary measures for the disproportionate effect they have on at-risk students and students of color.  In March, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights’ survey found that Black students are more than three-and-a-half times as likely as white students to be suspended or expelled, In addition, more than 70 percent of students arrested in school were Black or Hispanic.

A new article by University of South Florida Assistant Professor Zorka Karanxha and graduate student Eric S. Hall details how zero tolerance is funneling students in Florida and across the nation into the juvenile justice system.

In  “School Today, Jail Tomorrow: The Impact of Zero Tolerance on the Over-Representation of Minority Youth in the Juvenile System,” Karanxha and Hall write, “The growing number of school suspensions over the past decade has typically reflected a rising rate in the prison population, a trend that reflects a change in school policy to more punitive practices as opposed to an actual increase in the behavioral patterns of today’s youth.”

Many students are suspended for non-violent offenses that do not pose any threat to public safety and Black males receive harsher punishments for engaging in similar behaviors as their White counterparts.

According to Karanxha and Hall’s research, referral rates for Black males students is 2-3 times that of White male students in 91 percent of Florida’s counties.

The authors also point out that “once students experience exclusionary disciplinary actions, they experience great difficulty being readmitted into schools, which further exacerbates the dropout rate and school-to-prison pipeline.”

“The most important thing is that there is disproportionate punishment,” Karanxha said. “We’re not saying that we don’t want safe schools, but we have to be able to differentiate between criminality and misbehavior. I think we’ve kind of blurred that line.”

Many lawmakers agree. In June, both the Maryland and Michigan boards of education resolved to rethink their discipline policies in order to decrease suspensions. Major counties in California, Colorado, Texas, Virginia, North Carolina and Delaware have also taken up zero tolerance reform.

Karanxha and Hall argue that the missed instruction time that results from suspensions and expulsions make a high level of academic achievement nearly impossible and therefore push students out of school and into the juvenile justice system.

“What is a child going to do once he or she is suspended, what’s going to come of that?” Karanxha said. “If a child is suspended for regular misbehavior, he or she is not going to sit at home and read a book.”

Karanxha said the unfair policies also perpetuate the marginalization of many students by reinforcing stereotypes of black youth culture as inherently criminal or violent.. Zero tolerance also sends a damaging message to students who remain in in the classroom: this is how people are sorted; this is where you belong in society.

The National Education Association believes that while protecting the safety of students and staff is a school’s most important responsibility, zero tolerance is too severe and appears to be counterproductive. In his July 4 address at the 2012 NEA Representative Assembly, NEA Executive Director John Stocks condemned zero tolerance policies as an egregious violation of civil rights.

“Shoving our kids out of schools, shoving them away from the support they need, and denying them access from the tools that will equip them for life … It’s the ultimate act of intolerance and condemnation,” Stocks said. “And if we don’t do something, we will perpetuate the school to prison pipeline.”

As a part of its commitment to end racial profiling on a community-based level, NEA will be partnering with other organizations to challenge and change zero tolerance discipline policies in schools.

Karanxha said zero tolerance policies warrant both national attention and immediate reform.

“That’s the concern – how do we take a hard look at ourselves and what we do?” asked Karanxha. “We need to take a stand as leaders and educators to move away from this punishment and really educate.”

Read more about alternatives to zero tolerance