Zero Tolerance Discipline and Civil Rights: Rethinking School Punishment

Mar 1, 2012
Originally published on March 9, 2012 1:12 pm

Alexi Nunn Freeman, a lawyer for the Advancement Project, told us a story about five year-old Ja’eisha Scott who was arrested by the police in her kindergarten classroom for having a temper tantrum. This sounds extreme; but according to Freeman, it is part of a recent national trend.

The Advancement Project is a non-profit civil rights action group that has been following the emergence of a school-to-prison pipeline, and specifically, the impact of zero-tolerance discipline policies in schools. Freeman explains that in the 1980’s, practices meant for the war on drugs were adopted in schools as well, resulting in the criminalization of minor classroom misbehavior.

Check out an excerpt of the interview below.

Turnstyle: What are the trends you have seen over the past few decades in the use of discipline in schools? What’s the reason for the increase in discipline in schools?

Freeman: School discipline policies are directly related to the war on drugs that was going on in the 1980’s. Practices and policies that we were implementing on drug laws have really taken stance in the schools.

Things like having mandatory minimum sentencing laws, or having three strikes and you’re out, or the idea of aggressively policing minor offenses — these are things that were happening as a result of the war on drugs and we were implementing these processes in schools. When this started happening we really noticed a direct effect on young people; the schoolyard scuffle, or the talking back to a teacher, would now be classified as assault or as disorderly conduct, and that would result in students being arrested or suspended.

Turnstyle: How have policies changed?

Freeman: Back in the day when I was in school, [things like talking back to a teacher] weren’t appropriate for the schoool environment, but they resulted in a trip to principal’s office, or a call home. But now, they’re resulting in extended time out of school, and in the worst cases actually being arrested for these types of things. This has ballooned over the last ten years.

We also noticed these policies are implemented in many districts [and] are often very much implemented in urban districts that have with high populations of low-income students, and high populations of students of color. So you notice that the impact of these policies disproportionately affects these students. The policies also make their way into other schools as well, but again,  students of color, students with disabilities and now LGBTQ students, are disproportionately affected.

Turnstyle: In schools, are you seeing a backlash against these more punitive approaches, and trying to reverse this pattern?

Freeman: In the last couple years there has been some great community push-back and changes in policy. We were not allowing students to make mistakes and were harshly and swiftly punishing students instead of getting to the root of the problem and figuring out how can we prevent this stuff from happening again … We were responding with exclusionary policies and practices.

Turnstyle: Can you give us an example?

Freeman: In Baltimore in 2008 – 2009, we worked with the district to revise their policy. They had an exorbitant number of out of school suspensions. Out of school suspensions were used more than anything else, rather than in-school suspension, rather than parent-teacher conferences. It was [being used] for things like classroom disruption, defiance, or not obeying school policy — very subjective offenses.

But when we worked with them to revise their policy and focus more on effective prevention and intervention strategies, focused on keeping students in the school, the [policy revision] had dramatic results. Over five years, out of school suspensions have gone from over 26,000 to under 10,000. At the same time, their graduation rates have reached record highs. Baltimore is a district that has a high population of black students, so we’re really having an impact on young black males, which is a population that is often disproportionately affected.

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