An Unjust Solution

Not long ago in Georgia, a six-year-old named Salecia Johnson was handcuffed and taken from her elementary school to the local police station. The school chose to do this, instead of sending her to time-out, or home to her parents or to the principal’s office.

Zero tolerance in our schools has become an excuse for a blatant abdication of leadership, fairness, compassion, and common sense. When children are arrested for being children (Salecia apparently had a temper tantrum, something the local police in Millidgeville, Ga., figured out after they all went down to the station) who is impacted, what are the implications for our future, and what can we do?

Increasingly, it is children with disabilities and minorities who are impacted the most. A study released by the Department of Education in March of this year confirmed that African American children are three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than their peers who are white. More than 70 percent of school-related arrests or those referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American. Children with disabilities are twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions. Aided by the excuse of zero tolerance and increased police presence in our schools, suspensions, expulsions, and arrests have become the unjust solution to routine disciplinary problems.

Our future well being as a nation is at stake. At a policy briefing hosted by U.S. Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) about over incarceration and its negative impact last year, Matt Cregor of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said, “The harms of suspension pale in comparison to the harms of arrest. A first-time arrest doubles the chances a student will drop out. A first-time court appearance quadruples them.”

When students drop out, the human resource, what that student could have contributed to society, tends to be lost. The economic impact is devastating. We spend far more to incarcerate than we do to rehabilitate.

I remember being arrested in high school in my junior year and being too embarrassed to return to that school. I’m not saying I should not have been arrested; I failed to appear in court for a drug possession charge. However, the police had a choice, my home address as well as my high school address was on file. The following year, I dropped out of high school totally.

Salecia’s parents Ernest Johnson and Constance Ruff asked the same questions. In a video interview, Salecia’s mother, who only has access to a pre-paid cellphone, said her phone was out of minutes and that is why she did not receive the phone call from the school.

Just as I believe there were alternatives to coming to school and arresting me, Salecia’s parents want to know why the police did not contact someone else on the emergency list, such as her sister Candace. Salecia’s parents report their child is now having nightmares and waking up screaming, they are “coming to get me.” As statistics confirm, school arrests increase dropout rates, increase future incarceration rates and in some cases, like Salecia’s, causes psychological trauma.

Schools as gateways to prisons must be dismantled. Zero tolerance polices impose severe punishments, regardless of circumstances. In Connecticut, a bill has been introduced requiring formal agreements detailing roles and responsibilities for police officers stationed at schools. The bill is an attempt to stem the tide of inappropriate arrests of students.

There are models of public education that have said yes to education, yes to inclusion, and yes to excellence. Andrew Jackson, a public elementary school in Chicago has closed the opportunity gap. Nearly 70 percent of students are Asian/Pacific Islander, American Indian/Alaska Native, black or Hispanic. Yet, there is almost no achievement gap between groups of students in reading and math at Andrew Jackson. The school reports a very different pattern around school suspension rates than the rest of Chicago Public Schools (K-8) – less than one percent of African-American and Hispanic students received an out-of-school suspension.

This is a call to community action. Our legislators, administrators and concerned citizens must work together. Parents cannot protect their children from misguided disciplinary actions alone. Teachers cannot cope with disciplinary challenges alone. The police are ill equipped to adjust their training for a school setting; and we are all subjected to the lethal stereotypes that constantly bombard us falsely, casting people of color as dangerous and violent. Couple this with inflexible polices and our future -- for surely our children are our future -- is in peril. We cannot get so desensitized that we fail to speak up and speak out.