OP-ED: Why Zero Tolerance Means More Kids in Jail

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From Youth Communication

63614The United States imprisons more people than any other country — and a staggering number are juveniles. In fact, about half a million juveniles a year enter detention centers, not including those tried as adults, according to the Justice Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports alternatives to incarceration. Sadly, our school system is contributing to the problem. Too many children are denied their right to a quality education and instead set on a path toward failure and incarceration.

Our educational institutions are supposed to help us gain the skills we need to succeed in society and make the sometimes tough transition from child to adult. But for many young people, that’s not happening. The “school-to-prison pipeline” is a term often used to describe the bewilderingly high number of students who are directed — almost as if on an assembly line — toward prison rather than a successful future. The problem has become so serious that the U.S. Senate held hearings last December to try to put an end to the pipeline.

Zero Tolerance = Zero Common Sense


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Schools are not intentionally trying to make kids end up in jail, of course. It’s a lot more complicated than that. But some school policies designed to protect students — so-called “zero tolerance” policies that became popular in the 1990s in reaction to rising rates of gun violence and drugs in schools — have ended up contributing to the problem. The idea was that zero-tolerance policies would help schools respond quickly to acts of serious violence with detentions, suspensions, and expulsions for students believed to be a safety threat. But after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, many less serious infractions like fighting and disrupting class were added to zero-tolerance lists.

Punishments became much harsher, and schools were more likely to get police involved, sometimes for small things. In some schools, talking in class became ‘disorderly conduct,’ and writing on a desk became ‘vandalism,’ according to Senate testimony by Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights group. Studies show that zero-tolerance policies resulted in rising school arrest rates. That means more kids were being sent from school into the juvenile justice system: that’s the school-to-prison pipeline.

Discriminatory Policies

Everyone wants safe schools and safe communities. But surprisingly, zero-tolerance policies have not necessarily resulted in better school safety. This is because, in part, so much energy has been going into harshly punishing what used to be considered minor disciplinary cases. It’s probably also because zero-tolerance policies don’t address the root causes of youth violence.

Zero-tolerance policies have resulted in the neglect of troubled students, who often suffer from mental illness and need support more than anyone. Such students are too often shipped off to police, courts, and jail without adequate support to get them back on track. Studies have found that detention makes mental illness worse, not better, according to a Justice Policy Institute report. Not only that, but students with far less severe behavioral problems are increasingly being referred to the juvenile justice system rather than receiving help within the school.

Just getting suspended or expelled can put a young person on the path to incarceration. Students who get suspended or expelled are denied their right to an equal education: A 2011 study that followed a million Texas students for at least six years found that 31 percent of those who had been suspended or expelled repeated a grade at least once. (Among those kids who hadn’t been suspended or expelled, only 5 percent repeated a grade.) Falling behind in school leaves them even more susceptible to becoming involved in real crime. The research found almost half of the students who were disciplined by suspension or expulsion 11 or more times were in contact with the juvenile justice system.

Not only are these strict measures counterproductive and overused, but students of color tend to be disciplined more harshly and regularly than white students. Black students are three times more likely to be suspended, and four times as likely to be expelled as white students, according to expert testimony presented at the U.S. Senate hearings.

Building Strong Children

I believe the money used to fund all of these punitive security measures could be put toward preventive programs that are more compassionate, fair, and ultimately more effective. These include more counseling, training for teachers in how to handle difficult or troubled students, and programs to improve school and peer relations. Many such programs do exist and have been proven effective. But public schools face serious budget cuts that have already eliminated many such programs, as well as teachers and other staff who often support at-risk students.

Cutting or failing to implement more supportive discipline programs is short-sighted because it costs society more money in the long run to incarcerate people than to educate them. Once in the prison pipeline, it isn’t easy to escape. Research by the National Institute of Justice shows that exposure to inmates who have committed serious crimes may increase criminal behavior or reinforce antisocial behavior. Overcrowding, violence and rape are common in prisons, making them no place for rehabilitation.

While watching the Senate hearings on the school-to-prison-pipeline, I was struck by a reference to Frederick Douglass, a prominent 19th century abolitionist who was born into slavery. Douglass once said that it is much easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. Today, it feels like our society is reluctant to build strong children. It is easier to put troubled students out of sight and out of mind. Instead of protecting our nation’s youth from crime, we are generating more and more criminals each year.


This story originally appeared in YCteen, a magazine written by New York City teens. YCteen is published by Youth Communication, a non-profit organization that helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing.

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