Debunking the “Schoolhouse to Jailhouse” and “Zero Tolerance” Rhetoric – Part 2

Posted by on March 23, 2010

More Perspective on The Civil Rights Attack on School Discipline

In my last post entitled, “Debunking the “Schoolhouse to Jailhouse” and “Zero Tolerance” Rhetoric – Part 1,” and the post prior to that entitled, ““Zero Tolerance” Equals “Zero Common Sense”—Plus a Civil Rights Agenda?, I laid out some interesting and questionable examples of attacks on school administrators and school-based police by civil rights attorneys and advocates.

In it’s two-page “Talking Points: The School-To-Prison Pipeline”  memo, the ACLU claims the “school-to-prison pipeline is one of the most important civil rights challenges facing our nation today.”  It goes on to say, “The pipeline encompasses the growing use of zero-tolerance discipline, school-based arrests, disciplinary alternative schools, and secured detention to marginalize our most at-risk youth and deny them access to education.”

The Advancement Project in its overview of the project says, “Harsh school policies and practices and an increased role of law enforcement in schools have combined to create a “schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track,” in which out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests are increasingly used to deal with student misbehavior, especially for minor incidents, and huge numbers of children and youth are pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. This is more than an education crisis; it is a racial justice crisis because the students pushed out through harsh discipline are disproportionately students of color.”  

Reading this, you’d think most kids are afraid to cross the schoolhouse doors each day and that school administrators have a dart board with the names of students they randomly target daily to purposefully ruin their lives and education by engaging intentionally abusive disciplinary action.

But if this was really the situation, wouldn’t school districts be sued left and right for violating students’ due process rights?  How many such cases are filed and won by students’ families each year?  Is there data to show such a dramatic trend?

And the same applies for false arrest and related lawsuits against school-based police officers.  If they were violating student rights left and right each day across the nation, wouldn’t there be tons of successful lawsuits?

With all the talk of an alleged alarming, widespread phenomenon called “zero tolerance,” I always have to ask:  If this exists, then what did we have before the so-called “zero tolerance”:  A 50 percent tolerance for school violence? A 25 percent tolerance for school violence? And is this really what some advocates want to change school discipline and law enforcement to look like on campus tomorrow?

If this sounds absurd, it should.  And to the school safety professionals, educational administrators, and others who work each day in schools, claims of a widespread, alarming orchestrated nationwide practice of intentional harsh treatment of  “zero tolerance” and a “schoolhouse to jailhouse pipeline”  also sound absurd.

Debunking “Zero Tolerance” as a Widespread, Alarming Conspiracy

To suggest school administrators are turning over discipline and control of their schools to police officers in a widespread manner shows a sore lack of understanding of how schools operate.  Most inside the education and law enforcement communities know that if there has historically been any trend, it has been for schools to under-report school crimes to police.

My colleague, Jack Martin, sums it up best:  If there is such a thing as “zero tolerance,” it means that we report and respond with seriousness to all inappropriate behaviors.”  The consequences in each case will be based upon the specifics of the case and factors such as those described above.

Students need consequences.  The consequences must be appropriate to the context of the situation, the disciplinary and academic history of the student, age appropriateness, and related factors.

It has been my experience in 25 years of frontline work with educators that most school administrators strive for firm, fair, and consistent discipline applied with good common sense.  Unfortunately, in some higher-profile cases in recent years the ‘common sense’ part is missing from the equation.

We Can’t Legislate Common Sense, But We Can Better Train Administrators

The ACLU’s two-page “Talking Points: The School-To-Prison Pipeline”  memo says that, “…schools may use ‘selective discipline’ to keep low- performing students out of school during testing days.”  This is an interesting theory, albeit just that — a theory.

Where I do believe high-stakes testing has impacted school safety and discipline is in decreasing the amount of training time available for administrators, teachers, and support staff on managing aggressive and violent student behavior, implementation of school discipline policies, and other school safety issues.  Professional development training time has always been tight in schools.  And with educators’ jobs on the lines if their test scores go down in the “No Child Left Behavior” era of so-called “teacher and student accountability”, it is not surprising to find the already limited in-service training time for educators now filled with topics like brain research, learning theory, and curriculum planning.

My colleague, Chuck Hibbert, points out that typically three steps must take place before a child is arrested at school: The first is inappropriate behavior must be exhibited on the part of a student.  The second step is the school administrator must determine the behavior is beyond the control or resources of the school, that the behavior may constitute a crime, and that a call for the police is warranted.  The third step is the police arrive, investigate and determine the actions of the student constitute a crime, and probable cause exists to make an arrest. 

Chuck says the the focus of attack by civil rights advocates appears to be on the third link in this chain: The police officer.  He argues we should also focus on the first two links, i.e., the harmful behavior of the student and the training and guidelines for the school administration.  (We’ll talk about the need to focus on the harmful behavior of the students in an upcoming post.)

On the whole, school administrators do admirable job in managing the behavior and disciplinary challenges presented by some students.  We can always do more in terms of training provided the training is practical, useful, presented by specialists with experience and understanding in K-12 settings and safety issues, etc.  Unfortunately, training opportunities on safety, discipline, and related matters have become limited due to the focus on academic improvement.

Reduced training opportunities for school administrators could not happen at a worse time.  There is a new wave of deans, assistant principals, and principals stepping up to fill positions vacated by a growing mass of retiring school administrators.  Ideally this should bring about an increase in training on student behavior management, discipline policies and implementation, and related school safety topics for newly appointed administrators, but this is not happening in many schools.

As a result, some well-intended new school administrators are thrust into these positions with little formal training on school board discipline policy legal foundation, policy implementation, student behavior management, school discipline, school-police roles and relationships, school safety, and associated topics.  As a whole, they are doing an amazingly great job given the little training they do receive from their districts.  But less training does lead to increased risk of questionable action on discipline or criminal matters, be that in the form of overreacting or underreporting school crimes, and reduces the opportunity to prevent the lack of common sense judgement calls which make national news headlines.

Several organizations have a responsibility to do a better job in this area of training:  Local school districts are the logical starting point. Most state and national education associations could also focus do a better job of emphasizing discipline, behavior management, and school safety training more strongly and consistently in their ongoing professional development offerings.

But the bottom line is that the issues from anecdotalcases of questionable discipline and arrests stem from implementation of the policies, rather than from the policies themselves.  These implementation issues tend to center around a lack of common sense and good judgment.  And the best way to improve judgment (and hopefully common sense) is by better and properly training school administrators and school police officers, rather than creating new legislation to handcuff them in their decisionmaking. 

Wait…They Actually Are Trying to Legislate Common Sense!

I don’t believe common sense can be legislated.  I also don’t believe legislatures should be micro-managing school discipline.  And I believe we need to talk about not only the civil rights of disruptive and violent students, but also the civil rights of student and teacher victims of these behaviors who simply want to learn and teach in a safe environment.

But in my next post, you’ll find out some civil rights advocates are actively pushing exactly for that to occur:  Legislation and related task forces to set guidelines for dictating how school administrators should implement local school discipline.  They’re even trying to have dictated when and how school-based police officers can and cannot make arrests on campus!

You can read more on my thoughts on “zero tolerance” on my web site.

What are your thoughts?

Ken Trump

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3 thoughts on “Debunking the “Schoolhouse to Jailhouse” and “Zero Tolerance” Rhetoric – Part 2

  1. Great job of putting this issue into words simply asking for a common sense approach. At a time when schools are actually facing greater challenges to school achievement from all types of disruptive behavior, schools need a common sense advocate like you. What disturbes me additionaly is where are the national organizations who are suppose to advocate for school-based law enforcement? Where are the leaders of NASRO,NASLEO,IACP,FOP and the National Sheriff’s Association? Is this an issue that they have yet to see? Keep up the fight.

    1. Ken Trump says:

      Educators, legislators, law enforcement, and school safety officials are missing the big picture here, Chuck. I’m continuing to piece it together and connect the dots. Sadly, these issues are being presented under the guise of one thing and really appear to be an attempt to regulate school police and administrators in a manner which will undermine their ability to make local decisions based on the best interests of the students —including those students who are the victims of negative and violent behavior. Continue monitoring this ongoing series as there is more to come.

  2. Sharyn Goode says:

    It is one thing to not tolerate an act such as bullying, drugs, weapons or even items that can be misconstrued as weapons, but it becomes an entirely different matter when you not tolerate the child. Punish the act not the child. Zero tolerance punishes the child because it doesn’t take into consideration, of how the child might have obtained the items or the attitude. Each child is different and each situation is different you can’t through a blanket over the situation and say this is how we will deal with it. Zero tolerance needs to be flexible when dealing with the lives and minds of children and teenagers.

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