Schools must move away from zero tolerance

MARGARET SCOTT / newsart.com
MARGARET SCOTT / newsart.com
Posted: September 18, 2011

Judith Browne Dianis

is a civil rights litigator and codirector of the Advancement Project

Anand Jahi

is an organizer with the Philadelphia-

based Youth United for Change

The changes to the Philadelphia School District's zero-tolerance policy and some of the admirable recommendations in the recent blue-ribbon commission report on safe schools signal a widespread recognition that expulsions of city students is too high. These changes are necessary, but they are not sufficient to address the problem. The report's recommendations, for example, leave in place an all-too-common but false notion that additional outsourcing of school discipline to police will make schools safer and more effective.

The school district employed almost three times as many police and security officers as the next 20 largest school districts in Pennsylvania combined. There were more than 15 times as many school police and security personnel as there were school social workers. This was all part of the misguided zero-tolerance approach that resulted in city schools' punishing the same student behaviors far more harshly than they had in years past.

As a result, there were thousands of arrests of students every year, mostly of black and Latino students, and often for relatively minor offenses. Thousands of young people who made the same mistakes most people do at that age - like cutting class, making smart remarks, or fighting with their peers - had their lives turned upside-down and were started on a tragic pathway that often leads to dropping out and prison.

In the recent report "Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia," our organizations documented that, in many schools, the bloated security force contributed to a culture of violence, as some officers tried to maintain order through intimidation. Students reported being regularly threatened with violence or being physically struck by officers. Young women reported being harassed or touched inappropriately by school security.

Rather than being a safe harbor for young people, the overwhelming police presence turned many schools into hostile environments, where students' greatest fear often wasn't violence from their peers, but their daily confrontations with police and security officers.

Nevertheless, the commission has recommended that the district abdicate even more of its responsibility for discipline to school police officers and the Philadelphia Police Department. This is precisely the opposite of what is needed to build healthier and more productive learning environments within the city's schools.

The overreliance on police and security to handle school discipline has already failed to make district schools safer. It is folly to pretend that it is the answer now. No successful schools criminalize students the way Philadelphia does. None. Thus, it should be no surprise that, in an Education Week study of graduation rates within the nation's largest school districts, Philadelphia placed 47th out of 50.

The zero-tolerance approach wastes tens of millions of precious taxpayer dollars each year on failed security measures. This money could be used for new school buildings, additional teachers, and other resources to benefit Philadelphia youth. Instead, they are being used in ways that actually harm many young people.

The students who are arrested in school do not just disappear; they show up in the streets, in the unemployment line, and in our jails. They continue to remind us in very visual and costly ways that we have failed them, and by doing so, we have failed ourselves.

Philadelphia must seize the opportunity created by the change of leadership in the district to forge a new path, one that is guided by lessons learned from similar school districts. In places such as Baltimore and Denver, schools are moving away from zero tolerance. Through the use of disciplinary approaches that maximize class time and limit the role of law enforcement, schools are becoming safer and academic achievement is climbing.

In Baltimore, behaviors that many Philadelphia schools would respond to with a harsh punishment lead to an attempt by school personnel to address the root causes of the incident and to teach students more appropriate behaviors. As a result, suspension rates have decreased 60 percent in recent years. Graduation rates - especially for black males - have climbed to record levels. Juvenile crime is down.

Hopefully, the new attempt to reduce expulsions and the school safety report signal an attempt to move away from the failed "get tough" strategies of the Ackerman regime. Perhaps Philadelphia is ready to learn from past mistakes and "get smart" instead.


E-mail Judith Browne Dianis at stopschoolstojails@advancementproject.org, and Anand Jahi at anand@yucyouth.org.

 

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|