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Arrested Futures

News & Features | February 3, 2014

“You’re a stupid fucking bitch!” the student snapped. She tried to run away down the crowded hallway at Burncoat Middle School in Worcester, Massachusetts.

“No, you did not just call that to me,” the vice principal yelled after her.

The student rolled her eyes and continued to struggle through the packed halls, until a school police officer arrested her. She was charged with disturbing a lawful assembly under her school’s zero-tolerance discipline policy, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Obama administration is acknowledging that zero-tolerance discipline policies like this in public schools unfairly affect minority students and students with disabilities. On January 8th, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder released a document that describes what the American Civil Liberties Union calls the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The document outlined ways to “assist public elementary and secondary schools in meeting their obligations under federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin.”

Zero-tolerance policies and arrests by school police officers, critics say, disproportionately affect minority students and students with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education reported that over 70 percent of students either arrested or referred to law enforcement last year were Black or Hispanic. Students with disabilities are twice as likely as their peers to be suspended or expelled. One-third of Boston’s public school students are Black, but during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years, two-thirds of the students arrested were Black, according to a 2012 report by the ACLU of Massachusetts. Right here in Medford, where only 15 percent of public school students are Black, 32 percent of students assigned out-of-school suspensions were Black. No Black students received in-school suspensions.

Zero-tolerance policies are school rules that mandate the unconditional suspension or expulsion of students committing drug or violence-related offenses. According to the New York Times, these policies have been “broadened and distorted” by state and local governments “to expel children for minor infractions.” Carla Amurao of the Tavis Smiley Show on PBS describes how, post-expulsion, students “unnecessarily forced out of school become stigmatized and fall behind in their studies; many eventually decide to drop out of school altogether, and many others commit crimes in their communities.”

The presence of school police officers, known as Student Resource Officers (SROs), has increased over the past two decades, leading to more arrests for minor offenses.

Some see the zero-tolerance policies and the increased presence of SROs as part of an unjust institution that funnels students directly from school into the criminal justice system—the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“Schools first adopted these policies in the 1990s, not long after they had become a central feature of larger ‘tough on crime’ tactics aimed primarily to combat drug use and distribution,” explained Freeden Oeur, a Tufts University Assistant Professor of Education.

Zero-tolerance policies were also part of a broad response to the 1999 Columbine shootings, as a way to address concerns about students bringing weapons to school.

General safety is certainly an important consideration for school officials. A local high school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous because she fears repercussions from the school administrators, expressed her concerns: “The things that go on…we don’t feel safe. I don’t know how to balance that with zero-tolerance, but there’s got to be a way to make your school feel safe.”

But fifteen years after Columbine, these policies have created school environments that disproportionately affect minority students—and Massachusetts advocacy groups are taking notice. “A lot of the criminalization of young people in schools comes through a lens of racial control,” Carl Williams, a racial justice staff attorney at the ACLU of Massachusetts, told the Observer on January 16th. From a perspective of race, he sees the presence of SROs as especially problematic: “It turns school, for young people of color, people in marginalized communities, into… junior prison. In communities of color, police are there like an occupying force in an occupied country.”

In an email to the Observer, Tufts Associate Professor of Urban Education Sabina Vaught wrote, “school and prison are mimetic and complementary compulsory state institutions that operate to reproduce systems of white racial domination in the United States.”

In a phone interview, Joan Meschino, Executive Director of Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law, said that combatting the “school-to-prison pipeline” is her organization’s “signature project.” Meschino said that Massachusetts Appleseed sees schools, not prisons, as the best place for students to address their problems. Appleseed focuses on structural issues of discipline within classroom and school environments. She said that judges in Massachusetts juvenile courts feel that “as a group, they [are] probably the least qualified to address the underlying needs of the child in front of them.”

At least one school in the Boston area is following Appleseed’s philosophy. Charlestown High School in Boston has moved away from zero-tolerance policies in favor of discussion groups “aimed at creating a tight-knit community in order to prevent and resolve conflict,” according to MSNBC. The new program at Charlestown aims to replace suspension and expulsion with “restorative justice”—in-school support for students, rather than jail.

Yet not all consider “in-school support and counseling” an effective solution. In her email, Professor Vaught said that providing students with in-school support and counseling “masks the problem of systemic domination and directs the remedy at the individual, pathologized student.” She wrote, “Asking students to repress resistance in order to reduce the number of suspensions is another way in which the state enacts harm on students already harmed by the system.”

Although disagreement remains regarding the best way to create equitable discipline policies, there is growing concern within the news media, national and local governments, and academia that changes need to be made to discipline policies in public schools. But safety is still a serious concern among lawmakers and school administrators. Secretary Duncan and Attorney General Holder’s document acknowledges this, expressing a hope to “maintain school safety and student discipline.”

In a press release, Holder was optimistic. “By ensuring federal civil rights protections, offering alternatives to exclusionary discipline and providing useful information to school resource officers, we can keep America’s young people safe and on the right path.”

But there are countless students like the girl from Burncoat Middle School who experience the effects of police presence and zero-tolerance policies in their schools. For these students, a charge like “disturbing a lawful assembly” or “disorderly conduct” can become the first of many they will face after entering the criminal justice system at a young age.

Correction: February 1, 2014

In the print version of this article, the quotation of Professor Sabina Vaught referring to “in-school support and counseling” policies was not included in an expressly clear context. The context has been amended for this online version. The placement of the original quotation could have been interpreted as a specific response to the policy recommendations of the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law, which it was not.