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Zero-Tolerance Policies in U.S. Schools are Ineffective and Unaffordable

Despite public concerns about youth crime, particularly in schools, research has shown that policies based on incapacitation theory have failed utterly to affect crime rates. In fact, while youth crime rates have fallen significantly over the last 30 years, they have continued to plummet despite recent trends towards community-based alternatives (e.g., the ‘Missouri Model’). The evidence suggests that not only do punitive disciplinary approaches often fail they are also unnecessary. It is particularly troubling, then, to consider the police presence and draconian disciplinary measures that have increasingly found their way into America’s schools.

Schools typically have rules forbidding mobile phone use, profanity and the like. Taken at face value, these rules seem sensible and necessary to ensure order. However, when combined with broad zero-tolerance policies that often mandate inordinately harsh punishments like suspension or even expulsion from school for trivial infractions, breaking such rules can have dire consequences.

For example, a student suspended from classes for several weeks as a result of disruptive behavior may have significant trouble completing missed coursework upon returning to school. Additionally, the youth may well be unsupervised during their suspension. Here, the possibility of gang involvement or exposure to other negative influences can be significant. Youth of color and/or lower socioeconomic status are at particularly high risk in this respect.

Critically, there is often little investigation of causal factors behind students’ “aberrant” behaviors. Many youth act out as a response to previous trauma — sometimes within their families — or as a result of undiagnosed learning disabilities. In such instances, sending them home and keeping them from their studies for weeks at a time seems entirely counterproductive, aggravating rather than mitigating the problems at hand.

Even more disturbing, children are now sometimes subjected to arrest, physical restraint, and even the use of tear gas and pepper spray by police officers and security guards in schools. Media and researchers have identified these trends and the related school-to-prison pipeline, in which troubled and disadvantaged youth are singled out and schooled for a future in prison rather than university or the trades. Actions once viewed as minor transgressions—normal, if annoying, examples of adolescent socialization—have now been criminalized.

Given this untenable situation, it is imperative that other less punitive and more effective strategies for dealing with troubled (or merely troublesome) youth be explored and implemented.  These strategies should aim to explicitly benefit students, their schools, and their communities in the long term.

For example:

  • Less formal mediation is a practical alternative to law enforcement involvement or strict, zero-tolerance responses to misbehavior.
  • Academic evaluations should be used to generate individualized plans to address students’ unique needs (e.g., learning disabilities or developmental deficiencies.)
  • In addition to identifying students struggling with mental health issues, school social workers and psychologists can work to unmask and address conflicts or instabilities in students’ homes. Recent studies of trauma-informed care support such efforts.

In line with this thinking, California has made significant progress this year with the passage of four bills aimed primarily at keeping at-risk youth in school and out of the criminal justice system. Notably, the legislation calls for community service and other restorative disciplinary tactics to be tried before administrators may suspend students. As well, schools will no longer be able to routinely deny enrollment to youth who have had previous trouble with the law.

While suspension and expulsion can appeal to harried administrators and teachers as “quick fixes” for visible disciplinary problems, the potential collateral negative consequences and costs of these sanctions are clear. It is common knowledge that the less education a person has, the less money that person is likely to earn over their lifetime. Where unaddressed social or psychological co-factors exist, the probability of lower wages—and potential reliance on public funds—seems even greater as troubled youth transition to adulthood.

Finally, consider the expense of incarcerating someone over time versus providing them with needed support early on that could very well keep them out of the criminal justice system to begin with. Clearly, the smart money is on keeping kids—even troubled ones—in class and ensuring they graduate. It is imperative, then, to reframe students’ negative behaviors as just that: childish behaviors that can be addressed, changed, and grown out of; not crimes that must be punished.

NAACP Blasts Mace in Birmingham Schools

The NAACP launched an online petition this week, inviting people to lend their names to a campaign to end the use of pepper spray on students in Birmingham, Al. public schools.

“As long as we continue to treat students like criminals, they will grow up to become criminals,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous, in a written statement.

The NAACP argues that Mace and pepper spray may be legitimate parts of an adult or crowd policing strategy, but are not acceptable for use on school children. Birmingham’s public school population is overwhelmingly African-American.

The petition comes as wrangling in U.S. District Court over the practice reaches nearly the two-year mark. In December, 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed suit for damages on behalf of six defendants, and also asked for pepper sprays to be banned. They alleged that Birmingham police officers in the school used the chemical as a first resort and as punishment, among other charges.

“Mace is used so frequently and so indiscriminately in Birmingham’s public high schools that each Class Representative [defendant] — and all BCS students — faces a real and substantial risk of future and repeated injury,” the original complaint read.

Birmingham’s Board of Education and schools superintendent have been dismissed from the case, though six city police officers, the police chief and a high school assistant principal are still on the docket.

A spokeswoman for Birmingham City Schools declined comment.

Police carry the mace because it its part of their “daily equipment,” a police spokesman is quoted in Birmingham media.

The Birmingham police spokesman could not immediately be reached for any further comment.

In a written statement, Hezekiah Jackson IV, Metro Birmingham Branch NAACP president said, “we as a community must end this form of archaic police disciplinary response, implement alternative strategies and create an atmosphere in which all children of Birmingham can feel protected and comfortable.”

Photo source: http://justmytruth.wordpress.com/

U.C. Davis Campus Police Chief Suspended After Protestors Pepper Sprayed

The University of California, Davis, campus police chief has been placed on administrative leave after a video showing campus police pepper spraying seated protestors has gone viral. Protestors have called for the resignation of U.C., Davis chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi, according to The New York Times. The video has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

Speaking at a rally Monday, Katehi apologized to the protestors.

“I feel horrible for what happened on Friday,” she said. “I don’t want to be the chancellor of the university we had on Friday.”

Katehi told the crowd the protestors did not have to believe her.

“It is my responsibility to earn your trust,” she said.

Students are protesting continued university budget cuts and corresponding tuition increases. The Times reports the California Legislature will likely push through a further $200 million in cuts to higher education in 2012. Next year the University of California will collect more from student tuition than from state funds.

Following the pepper spray attacks, protestors at other University of California campuses vowed to restart encampments Monday night. On a conference call with the chancellors of all 10 University of California campuses, U.C. president Mark G. Yudof urged them to refrain from using police force against “peaceful, lawful protests,” according to The Times.

Photo by Flickr | uzvards

Southern Poverty Law Center Sues Birmingham Schools for Using Mace on Children

Teens in Birmingham, Ala. schools have been routinely sprayed with mace and pepper spray as punishment for minor offenses. The Southern Poverty Law Center has now filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Birmingham City School District on behalf of students who've had chemicals used on them.

“We must ask ourselves, what kind of school system allows armed officers to come in and use mace on its children,” said Ebony Glenn Howard, lead attorney on the case for the Center.

Hundreds of students were arrested in the Birmingham City Schools last year for minor offenses that could have been taken care of in the principal’s office, according to the Center. The SPLC threatened to sue the Birmingham School Board last month if the Board did not agree to stop the practice of spraying kids, according to the Birmingham News.

The lawsuit claims the use of chemical weapons against children to enforce basic school discipline is unconstitutional. The Center is seeking financial damages for students and their parents.

The lawsuit also details how mace is used against restrained kids who pose no threat to themselves or others.

The suit points out that kids who are exposed to pepper spray and mace are at risk for several health effects, ranging from temporary vision loss to eye and skin blistering. They can also get life threatening symptoms like throat inflammation and swelling, which could make it hard for a child to breathe.

WBRC-TV tried to get in touch with the Birmingham School District and still has not gotten a response.

To read the full lawsuit, click here.