Education under arrest: Time to end zero tolerance in our schools

What is the point of school?

The answer should be obvious. For students in the public education system after 1994, however, the answer might be less clear.

The public education system is supposed to prepare juveniles to become academically and socially engaged before sending them out into society. Yet, over the past few decades more students have been proceeding directly from the school system to the criminal-justice system.

The rise in juvenile incarceration is tied to the “school to prison pipeline,” a confluence of policies nationwide that criminalize youth behavior. One of the main contributors to this pipeline, along with increased police presence in schools, is the enforcement of zero-tolerance policies.

Zero tolerance has come to mean mandatory consequences for students who break rules without regard for the seriousness of the behavior, mitigating circumstances, or situational context.

In March of 2013, Josh Welch, age 7, was suspended from school after he chewed his Pop-Tart into the vague shape of a gun. Josh had been diagnosed with ADHD. He and his parents tried to explain to school administrators and later the police that his actions were not intended to be violent, simply juvenile. He now has a tainted record due to the illogical sentencing perpetrated by zero-tolerance policies.

Zero tolerance further proves not only to be illogical, but also affects students disproportionally. An overwhelming amount of evidence has shown that zero tolerance targets minorities.

Statistically, African-American students have a harder time of staying in school due to push-out mechanisms amplified by zero tolerance. When questioned, legislators who support these policies attribute vast statistical differences in suspensions for Caucasian students versus African-American students to “behavioral factors.”

Furthermore, the general increase in suspensions due to zero tolerance increases the amount of missed instruction. As students get further and further behind academically, they develop pessimistic and adverse attitudes to school. This leads to a cyclical nature of failure and is emphasized in low income communities which further perpetuates inequality.

Recently, there have been strides to remove zero-tolerance policies from schools. Many policies that were tied to federal funding have expired or been repealed such as No Child Left Behind which ended in 2007. Further, many policies to counteract the effects of zero tolerance have either passed the Senate or are currently scheduled to be heard. One of these is the Every Child Succeeds Act, which requires states to stop unnecessary seclusion of students and physical restraints in response to discipline problems.

In 2011, North Carolina signed into law a new discipline code. The state worked with Duke Children’s Law Clinic to create policy that would significantly change how discipline is implemented in schools. This law prohibits zero tolerance in that one punishment may not be set for a specific offense. Further, the superintendent must take into account circumstances regarding the student and the incident. Old policies used to be applied to each district, disregarding the unique needs of each school. The new law lets individual schools write their own codes of conduct.

The school to prison pipeline deserves much more attention. Laws that criminalize youth behavior forcing students into the criminal-justice system unnecessarily are a form a punishment that will affect the child and our larger society for generations. Thankfully, an abundance of research and activism is producing legislation that combats the effects of zero tolerance and build schools up to best prepare their students.

Lucy Sondland is a sophomore at Duke University.

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