Movement needed to end ‘zero tolerance’

Jan. 18, 2014 @ 10:43 AM

Earlier this month, the White House issued a number of recommendations to help public schools reduce racial disparities in disciplinary procedures. Specifically, the White House is urging schools to reduce their use of suspensions and expulsions and move away from “zero- tolerance” policies, which have been proven to increase drop-out rates and needlessly increase the number of students who enter the criminal justice system. While these federal recommendations are welcome, the real decision-making and action must happen at the state and local levels.

In Durham, there has been much discussion on how to reduce suspensions and expulsions, which are disproportionately affecting and damaging the lives of students of color and students with disabilities. The problem in Durham has become so bad that Legal Aid of North Carolina recently filed a Title VI complaint with the Federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

According to their complaint, the suspension rate for black students was more than four times that of white students, and for students with disabilities almost double the rate of students without disabilities. About 1 in 7 black students was suspended, and almost 1 in 5 students with disabilities. The high rate and disproportionate impact of these suspensions is alarming.

Unfortunately, it’s not a simple problem to solve, and the increased use of suspensions is part of a larger issue referred to as the “School to Prison Pipeline” or STPP. The American Civil Liberties Union defines the STPP as “policies and practices that push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”

“Zero-tolerance” and similar policies at the heart of the school-to-prison pipeline are  relics of the 1990s and far too often result in mandatory punishments for minor infractions. Where students were once given detentions or other in-school punishments coupled with one-on-one counseling, Durham and other school systems have progressively used suspensions and expulsions for a wide range of minor violations of the student code of conduct. By using such an indiscriminate punishment policy, we have denied thousands of student’s access to a consistent education, and needlessly sent many of our children into the criminal justice system.

Within the Durham Public Schools Student Code of Conduct, several policies require the same punishment for minor offenses as for significantly more violent acts.  For example, clothing violations or making gestures that could be construed as a “gang sign” are a Level 3 offense, the same level as threatening an act of terror. While curbing the threat of gang violence is  important , these policies overreach and have unintended consequences. A student should not be thrown out of school for wearing the wrong color clothing. Removing these outdated policies would help create a rational conduct policy based on reason and compassion.

DPS has taken recent steps to address the issue. The recently opened Lakeview School provides students who are given long-term suspensions an opportunity to remain in an educational environment, and a similar program called the Second Chance Academy does the same for short-term suspensions. Both of these programs have been successful and applauded.

The issue is now one of capacity. With state funds repeatedly slashed, teachers and administrators are hard pressed to provide a quality education for students who are doing well, let alone providing highly-specialized programs for students who have been suspended. Without enough resources to do what works, no amount of planning or great ideas will solve the problem.

Regrettably, our state government has been taking resources from our public schools and exacerbating the suspensions and expulsion problem. Our teachers have been put in the incredibly difficult position of having to both care for individual student needs while still maintaining order in overcrowded, underfunded classrooms.

This spring, the North Carolina General Assembly will debate the state budget for 2015-16, and education will be a hotly debated topic. It will take a movement of committed parents and activists demanding increased funding for public schools to secure the necessary resources to expand these programs that we know work.

Action NC is working to help parents become better advocates at demanding school policy changes, and increased state funding to make those changes effective. We urge parents to attend our upcoming trainings, and everyone to build a strong school reform movement that ensures the safe and fair learning environment every North Carolina child deserves.

Gloria De Los Santos is Durham director for Action NC.