News

Zero Tolerance means Zero Chances

Story by Zoe Collenburg

My cousin got in a fight, rather a tussle, when he was in middle school; another child threw a punch, and he pushed him off of him. My cousin was expelled and the incident went on his record. When he turned 19, he had to fill it in on his job applications and  couldn’t get a job at McDonald’s. It is still on his record and employers will get to pick and choose if they use it to not hire him. As a grad student studying neuroscience, it is still apart of his life. And that’s just as a white male.

The school-to-prison-pipeline is a collection of policies and practices that push schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. It is the reflection of our prioritization of incarceration over education.”

This pipeline is created and maintained in a few different ways. A huge factor are Zero Tolerance Policies. Under these policy students are expelled for bringing nail clippers or scissors to school. Rates of suspension have increased dramatically in recent years—from 1.7 million in 1974 to 3.1 million in 2000— and have been most dramatic for children of color. Policies like these tell children they are not fit for society, and not only encourage, but put children without constructive activities in unsupervised situations, leading to disengagement and dropouts. I remember when my friend’s brother accidently brought his pocket knife to school. He was 9 at the time and he forgot to take it out. His parents were called and it was taken away, but that was about it for a clearly affluent white child. I now look back and shudder to think what would have happened if he was of color or not Christian. Ironically, Zero Tolerance Policies were created in response to school shootings, with the goal of reducing school violence and crimes, these policies are only sentencing students to incarceration.

This school-to-prison-pipeline targets students of color and low-income students, only sending them farther behind. In Philadelphia, 23 schools have been closed already this year–93% of which were low-income with 81% Black students and 4% White. Similarly, Chicago has closed a whopping 56 schools with 94% low-income and 88% Black. New York follows in suit, having closed 26 schools, 59% Black students and 43% Latino. Hopefully shocking, but probably not, these statistics tell a frightening story about what is happening to our children who are already in poor situations. They are being treated like criminals for being children, and then seeing older students in their cities shot down for a misunderstanding. These students are continually being discouraged and brought down, they are never encouraged– just the opposite of what developing students need.

The policing of school hallways has also led to this increase– police making school-based arrests are on the rise. Growing numbers of districts employ school resource officers for hallway patrol, but, they have little or no training for working with children. Which means that children are far more likely to be arrest–most of which are nonviolent. School-based arrests are the quickest route from the classroom to the jailhouse; this rise most directly exemplifies the criminalization of school children. Putting children away for causing a disruption in a hallway does not help them or educate them; it leads to disengagement and dropouts.

What’s most frightening of all are disciplinary alternative schools; schools that are exempt from minimum classroom hours and curriculum requirements (mostly private and for-profit companies)–usually are the same companies running prisons. Students are placed here for periods of time–instead of suspension and expulsion– then when they return, they are, unprepared, permanently in these alternative schools, or pushed through into juvenile justice systems. These “schools” only further the pipeline and solidify the creation of children into criminals.

If an adult commits a crime, they get a lawyer? But up to  80% of court-involved children do not have lawyers. Students who commit minor offenses may end up in secured detention if they violate probation conditions. They are denied procedural protections, resulting in even further criminalization just for missing school or not listening to a teacher. These students learn that the American justice system has no justice.

Since Reagan’s declaration of the War on Drugs in 1980, prison populations have spiked from 500,000 to over 2.3 million in 30 years. Picture the fact that America accounts for 5% of the world, but we hold 25% of the world’s prisoners. $9 out of every $10 spent on imprisonment comes from the same pot of money as state education at the K-12 and collegiate level. In the 2012 Vera Institute of Justice study, taxpayers are paying $39 billion for the four decade 700% increase of incarceration. The privatization of the prison systems means that they need a bigger market, furthering the pipeline’s power.

My mother recently finished her Alternative Teaching Certification (teacher’s certification for college graduates over the summer) and she was working in a summer inner-city school program. Students were in summer school for a variety of reasons; a prominent one being  their absences keeping them from moving onto 7th grade. What my mom found most heartbreaking was that some of these students were smart they could get a 3.5 in high school, that combined with being of color and first generation. College students could get themselves incredible scholarships to state universities, but did they know? Did they even know they were smart? No. Most of them heard from tired, overworked teachers that they were handfuls and too much trouble. This story is true across America. From our foster system, to the way we treat our teachers, to the policies at our public schools, we are funnelling at-risk children into prisons, costing us billions and sending children into a wasted life with no way out.

About the Writer…

image1Zoë Collenburg is a Junior out of state student (hook ’em horns!)  double majoring in  English and Communication with a Theatre Emphasis. She is the Vice Chair of Student  Senate, a Student Ambassador, and an Orientation Leader. She loves coffee, being on stage,  and long walks on the beach.

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