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The Providence Journal

‘Zero-Tolerance’ Policies Funnel Students into Prisons

Annette Fuentes

It’s almost cap-and-gown time for seniors at high schools around the country, but too many teenagers have dropped out of school and are at risk of entering the criminal-justice system.

This is one of the greatest failures of our educational system. About 10 percent of all males in prison are high-school dropouts.

The zero-tolerance policy of school disciplinary codes has contributed greatly to this problem. It has created an epidemic of suspensions for behaviors that are often minor transgressions.

Not too long ago, student disruptions — talking in class, shoving in the hallways, being tardy — would receive a slap on the wrist. Now, at the discretion of teachers and principals, such behavior leads to in-school and out-of-school suspensions, which can last a few days or longer.

In California alone, there were more than 700,000 out-of-school suspensions in the last school year. And the Texas school system had more than half a million.

Each time a student is excluded from the classroom, it puts his or her education in suspension, too, and it increases the likelihood that the student will drop out.

Education researchers have found that suspensions early in a child’s academic career, even as young as elementary school, are a predictor of dropping out by the 10th grade.

Suspensions lead to the school-to-prison pipeline. The harsh discipline of zero-tolerance policies puts the most vulnerable kids, disproportionately black and Latino students, at greatest risk of dropping out of school. And from there, excluded from education and with limited prospects, they are at greater risk of falling into jail.

Zero-tolerance discipline and the suspension epidemic are like a public-health threat, so it’s no wonder that the American Psychological Association came out strongly against these harsh practices in public schools several years ago. The group called for a new approach to creating safe schools in a healthy learning environment.

A national coalition of educators, legal and civil rights advocates is doing just that. They’ve come together to form the Dignity in Schools Campaign, which is calling on Congress to replace a zero-tolerance approach to safety and discipline with something completely different: positive behavioral supports. In this model, adopted by Los Angeles schools, students’ good behaviors are rewarded and their bad behaviors are viewed as an opportunity for learning and remediation.

The harsh model of discipline that prevails in too many U.S. schools needs to be replaced with a model that is more befitting their core mission: to educate our young and teach them with compassion and understanding.

Once that happens, we’ll have many more of our high-school students reaching out for their diplomas, instead of going to jail.

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Annette Fuentes is the author of “Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse.” She wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues.

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