In a rejection of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies at public schools, the Obama administration last week urged school districts to use law enforcement as a last resort and offered guidelines that include counseling for students, coaching for teachers and disciplinary officers, and classes in social and emotional skills for students. Schools should use law enforcement as a last resort -- what a concept.
Critics of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, including me, were relieved to see the federal government take a position. However, it's something of a "Duh" moment. Whoever thought suspending students for defiance or arresting them for scuffling was a good idea? Who thought making the punishments mandatory -- removing the discretion of principals, teachers and counselors -- was sound policy? When did suspension replace counseling as an educational tool?
Under the zero-tolerance banner, scores of students are being suspended. In 2009-2010, seven percent of California students were suspended. Predictably, a disproportionate number of African-American students are pushed out of the classroom. The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights found that African-American students are three times as likely as their white peers to be suspended or expelled.
Students are being suspended for defiance, texting in class or cursing at the teacher. According to The Associated Press, in 2012, 40 percent of California's school suspensions were because of defiance.
So what happens when a student is kicked out of class for defiance? He or she falls behind in classwork and may end up in an unsupervised situation that can lead to more serious behavior problems or even danger to the students.
Addressing the suspension crisis in California, three laws were enacted in 2012 to give principals and school officials more discretion in disciplining students. Previously principals could be charged with an infraction and fined if they did not report certain offenses to law enforcement. Punitive was the operative philosophy, even in terms of school officials.
Another aspect of zero-tolerance was the assignment of police officers to schools. The idea was to address gang and other kinds of violence, including school shootings. According to several studies, schools were not safer with the officers and their presence resulted in more students being handcuffed and arrested for nonviolent offenses. Behavior that used to land students in the principal's office — fighting, truancy, cursing at the teacher — was criminalized and students got caught up in the criminal justice system.
The policies are of the same mindset as the mandatory sentencing laws that have imprisoned large numbers of nonviolent offenders for long periods, some of them for life, making us the country with the largest incarceration rate in the world.
Indeed, social justice advocates have for years identified the school-to-prison pipeline, which starts with zero-tolerance discipline that criminalizes students, setting them on the path to prison. This is particularly insidious when you consider the growth of the private prison industry that profits from incarceration and thereby lobbies for harsher sentencing.
Oakland, certainly more progressive than conservative, was nonetheless caught up in zero-tolerance excesses. The Urban Strategies Council, a research institute in Oakland, found that in 2010-2011, while African-American boys made up 17 percent of the students in Oakland, they comprised 42 percent of the suspensions. They were six times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. One in three black boys in middle school and one in five in high school had been suspended.
It's worth noting that given the demographics of the teaching staff in Oakland and other urban areas, a good number of the teachers suspending African-American boys in such disproportionate numbers are themselves African-American. The biases that treat black children more harshly than white children aren't exclusive to white or non-black teachers.
In 2012, in the face of a federal investigation of the disproportionate suspensions, the Oakland school board entered into an agreement with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, approving a five-year plan to reduce the number of suspensions; OUSD is under federal oversight until 2017.
Oakland has made some progress, exploring alternative disciplinary approaches such as restorative justice. Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth has had success in the schools, using talking circles to explore the causes of conflict, hold students accountable and facilitate reconciliation. The African American Male Achievement Initiative has also worked to reduce suspensions (as well as the dropout rate, chronic absenteeism and to increase the graduation rate.) In three years the suspension rate for black boys has been reduced from 18 percent to 11 percent. Last fall, the school board approved a $700,000 program to reduce suspensions that includes additional teachers to work with black male students.
It's a relief to see school districts and the federal government turning away from zero-tolerance discipline. But remind me again:Who thought it was a good idea?