WALKING into many central-city schools — some equipped with metal detectors and security officers — can feel a little like walking into a state prison. In fact, the so-called school-to-prison pipeline can start with suspensions and expulsions that lead to idleness, falling back, and dropping out.
Nearly 80 percent of prisoners listed truancy as their first offense, reports the U.S. Department of Justice. Over the past two decades, zero-tolerance policies and pressures to push out lower-performing students have boosted suspensions and expulsions nationwide, including in Ohio.
Misconducts such as fighting and disorderly behavior too often get resolved in juvenile court instead of the principal’s office. Given trends in the criminal justice system, it’s not surprising — but still deplorable — that zero tolerance policies in school have had a vastly disproportionate effect on children of color.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan stated that department data show black students were three times more likely than white children to be suspended or expelled. Students with disabilities are also far more likely to get suspended — or to be involved in a school-related arrest.
Last week, the Obama Administration asked the nation’s schools to drop hyper-zealous discipline policies that send too many students to court instead of the principal’s office. Attorney General Eric Holder noted that "zero tolerance" policies can needlessly inject the criminal justice system into conflicts that local schools should handle, including expelling or suspending students for school uniform violations, schoolyard fights, or even laughing in class.
New federal school discipline guidelines are nonbinding, but school districts ought to take them seriously. They encourage schools to make sure employees are trained in classroom management, conflict resolution, and in ways to de-escalate classroom disruptions. Educators need to understand — and most of them do — that they are responsible for routine discipline. They aren’t security or police officers.
To their credit, school districts nationwide, including in Ohio and Toledo, already have started to change policies. During the last school year, Toledo Public Schools launched a districtwide preventative discipline system. Piloted at six TPS schools, the system aimed to prevent disciplinary actions by improving school climates, reinforce positive behavior, and teach appropriate action to students. Statistics showed that, although only 43 percent of the district’s student population was African-American, more than 70 percent of the days lost to disciplinary issues involved black students.
Starting last September, another pilot program in Toledo — "Alternative to Suspension," involving Pickett Elementary School and the Frederick Douglass Community Association in the central city — has significantly reduced suspensions. The school refers students with behavior programs to the community center for supervised study.
And in Detroit, a program called Operation Safe Passage had police pick up dozens of truants. Instead of ticketing them, however, they sent the kids back to class, where they received counseling or other services, or took them to precincts where parents and guardians were called and counselors provided by Detroit Public Schools and Children’s Aid Society.
Common-sense and effective programs like these can keep more kids in school and, eventually, out of prison.
Teachers have a tough enough job, and maintaining a safe and orderly classroom can tax the most talented of them. But the statistics are clear: Zero tolerance policies have hindered the educations and prospects of many students, especially those of children of color.
Local school districts, including Toledo, already have taken steps to alleviate the problem, but new federal guidelines, if followed, could do even more to plug the school-to-prison pipeline.