Debunking the “Schoolhouse to Jailhouse” and “Zero Tolerance” Rhetoric – Part 1

Posted by on March 22, 2010

School Suspensions Under Fire by Civil Rights and Other Advocates 

“School Suspensions Lead to Legal Challenge”  was the headline of a New York Times article on March 18, 2010.  

The article highlighted a school discipline case headed to the North Carolina Supreme Court which, “…has drawn the attention of civil rights, legal aid and education groups around the country,” according to the story. 

The North Carolina incident served as a peg for highlighting school suspensions for “lesser violations” of school rules than weapons or drug offenses.  The article cited 3.3 million annual suspensions of pubic school students. It focused on what it described as, “…a sharp racial imbalance: poor black students are suspended at three times the rate of whites, a disparity not fully explained by differences in income or behavior. 

The New York Times article also referenced Arne Duncan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education: 

On March 8, the education secretary, Arne Duncan, lamented “schools that seem to suspend and discipline only young African-American boys” as he pledged stronger efforts to ensure racial equality in schooling. 

The article goes on to talk about “zero tolerance,” but I found it interesting that like most writing on this topic, no concrete definition of “zero tolerance” was provided.  

Anti-bullying programs, positive-behavior-feedback and training students and teachers in conflict resolution were credited with reducing suspensions in Denver, Baltimore, and Cleveland in recent years.  Baltimore Schools reported a 39 percent drop in suspensions in 2008-9 from two years prior.  The district amended its discipline code and adopted in-school mentoring with the help of the Open Society Institute, a non-school entity funded by George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist and businessman, and Democratic political activist. 

American Psychological Association Report Debunks “Schoolhouse to Jailhouse” and “Zero Tolerance” Rhetoric 

One of the interesting references in the New York Times article was to a 2006 zero tolerance task force report by the American Psychological Association (APA).  While I believe a number of their recommendations are appropriate for addressing school discipline and violence (to be addressed in a subsequent blog post), I found three quotes from their article particularly of interest: 

  1. “Such policies appear to be relatively widespread in America’s schools, although the lack of a single definition of zero tolerance makes it difficult to estimate how prevalent such policies may be.” (Report page 852 – page 1 of the pdf file). 
  2. “Although security technology and school resource officers may be useful as part of a comprehensive approach to preventing school violence, data are currently insufficient (see, e.g., Mayer & Leone,
    1999; Skiba & Rausch, 2006) for determining whether these methods, which tend to be resource intensive, are of sufficient benefit in promoting safe schools.” (Report page 856, page 5 of the pdf file)
  3. “Although some of the apparent parallels between the educational and juvenile justice systems are compelling, the majority of research on the school-to-prison pipeline is currently anecdotal or descriptive.
    Longitudinal research that prospectively examines the long-term outcomes of school suspension and expulsion would be necessary to test hypothesized causal influences of disciplinary practices on juvenile justice outcomes.” (Report page 856, page 5 of pdf file)
I believe these three conclusions by the American Psychological Association (APA) debunk a great deal of the rhetoric from those claiming the existence of an alarming, widespread “Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Pipeline” and “Zero Tolerance” phenomenon across most American schools.   
  • The APA task force acknowledges in the on-set of its article that there is not a single definition of “zero tolerance” and it is therefore difficult to estimate how prevalent such policies (whatever they may actually be defined as).  Yet at that time, the APA created a task force on this “widespread” phenomenon which has not even been defined with a universal definition and for which no data can therefore be collected on how prevalent it (whatever “it” is) is in schools nationwide.  So there is no single definition, and no data to identify if or how prevalent this “problem” is if it exists, but yet so-called “zero tolerance” is determined to be widespread, alarming, etc.?
  • Even if there was a single, universal definition of “zero tolerance” (which there is not) that is used to describe what APA characterized as, “…a philosophy or policy that mandates the application of predetermined consequences, most often severe and punitive in nature…,” what exactly is the threshold for separating routine discipline including discipline for serious misbehavior from that which constitutes “zero tolerance” discipline and discipline which is “severe and punitive”?  What type of discipline is not “punitive” in one sense or another?  Are there student conduct codes with discipline which is “happy” and “positive” discipline with nothing at all “punitive” about it, especially from the eyes of the child being disciplined? 
  • Groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and The Advancement Project appear quick to attack school resource officers (SROs) and the use of security equipment. 
    • In it’s two-page “Talking Points: The School-To-Prison Pipeline”  memo, the ACLU refers to school resource officers as, “With little or no training in working with youth, these officers approach youth as they would adult ‘perps’ n the street, rather than children at school.”  The “Talking Points” document also says, “Resources that could be put towards improving under-resourced schools are instead used for security.  School districts spend millions of dollars for police officers and security personnel despite the fact that these very schools are the ones lacking basic educational resources like textbooks and libraries.”  
    • Yet the APA report concludes that, “Although security technology and school resource officers may be useful as part of a comprehensive approach to preventing school violence, data are currently insufficient (see, e.g., Mayer & Leone, 1999; Skiba & Rausch, 2006) for determining whether these methods, which tend to be resource intensive, are of sufficient benefit in promoting safe schools.” 
    • So in other words, school resource officers and security technology may very well be a useful part of a comprehensive school safety program according to the APA’s report, and there is no academic research saying these strategies are or are not ineffective, but civil rights advocates continue to slam these components of a comprehensive school safety program without any solid established nationwide data to prove them ineffective.
  • In it’s two-page “Talking Points: The School-To-Prison Pipeline”  memo, the ACLU calls The School-to-Prison Pipeline “one of the most important civil rights challenges facing our nation today,” and a “national trend of criminalizing rather than educating, our nation’s children.”   The memo says that, “Students of color are disproportionately represented at every stage of the school-to-prison pipeline.”  And it says that, “Students with special needs are disproportionately represented in the school-to-prison pipelines, despite the heightened protections afforded to them under the law.”
    • Yet the APA study concluded, “the majority of research on the school-to-prison pipeline is currently anecdotal or descriptive.Longitudinal research that prospectively examines the long-term outcomes of school suspension and expulsion would be necessary to test hypothesized causal influences of disciplinary practices on juvenile justice outcomes.”
    • So in other words, the APA task force report found there is no research indicating such a “schoolhouse to jailhouse” or “schoolhouse to prison pipeline” actually exists, or that it is a widespread, alarming phenomenon as described by civil rights and other advocates. Those fanning the flames appear then to be basing their advocacy campaigns upon anecdotes and philosophy, rather than research and data.
    • And for every anecdote out there to suggest questionable judgment and over-the-top school discipline and law enforcement on school campuses, we can also show anecdotes of the under-reporting of school discipline incidents and crimes on campus
    • My anecdotal experience of 25 years working with school administrators nationwide actually portrays the vast majority of school administrators as striving for firm, fair, and consistent discipline.  The majority of school administrators in my extensive firsthand work in schools give kids the benefit of the doubt and, if anything, tend to lean towards leniency rather than being overly punitive in administering discipline and calling for police action (arrest and other) against their students.

Final Take (For Today)

There are many serious issues in school discipline today.  These range from concerns about aggressive behavior by younger and younger students to legitimate questions about a multitude of factors behind the suspensions and expulsions of minority students.

But there also appears to be an increasingly vocal and organized attack on school administrators and school-based police by civil rights attorneys and advocates .  The expansion of legal and political advocacy into school discipline and school safety should beg us to start asking whether expanded political agendas targeting our neighborhood school’s principal office will really help discipline, school safety, and kids?

What say you?

Ken Trump

Visit School Security Blog at:  http://www.schoolsecurityblog.com 

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