How zero-tolerance policies are hurting our children

Families in Louisiana are calling for an end to zero-tolerance policies and suspension laws because they do not address student behavior and disproportionately target poor people and students of color. Secondlineblog’s Andre Perry discusses on his latest CNN appearance that the “vigorous enforcement of lower level offenses with the aim of reducing or preventing high level offenses penalize the people who are being targeted by these laws and policies.” Under zero-tolerance policies in schools, students become primed for a life of cycling through the system. Most of us can agree that we have an education issue in Louisiana and here in New Orleans. Last year the state of Louisiana reported suspending 1000 kindergarteners. Given the evidence that demonstrates the likelihood of incarceration among students suspended from school, it seems absurd that students as young as five and six year old are subject to such probabilities. This trend of punitively removing students from critical classroom instruction not only fails to address the root causes of student behavior, it ultimately undermines the school’s ability to establish themselves as a safety net. Instead, schools have become the proverbial “training camp” for detention centers throughout the state.

Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children based in New Orleans are urging law makers to amend SB 54– a law that is the basis for school discipline and zero-tolerance policies for K-12 in Louisiana. The bill proposed by Senator West-Broome of Baton Rouge was heard and passed the Senate’s Education Committee last week. The revision would reduce the number of suspensions and explosions by excluding students grade K-3, unless students are a threat to the safety of others. Rather than suspending or expelling students, a case-by-case determination would be made for students who displayed unacceptable behavior. The bill suggests schools begin to implement alternatives to suspension such as a loss of privileges, counseling, or a set of interventions that seek to address the behavior while also keeping the student in school. Zero-tolerance policies are subjective to who are interpreting and enforcing them. The current trend demonstrates that these policies only initiate contact between law enforcement and our children. Teaching is incredibly hard, in building behavior intervention plans with students and families I always saw my role as two fold both to maintain a safe and structured learning environment for all of my students and to be compassionate and understand my students as whole beings. By identifying serious behavior issues and complementing interventions early teachers become shields and the arm of the safety nets schools are intended to be.

Alternatives like intervention and counseling have shown to address behaviors in student and deter higher level offenses. Mayor Mitch Landrieu is championing the use of restorative justice in New Orleans public schools through the NOLA FOR LIFE initiative. New Orleans Health Department and Center for Restorative Approaches have just announced last week that they have partnered with NOLA FOR LIFE by supporting the work of conflict resolution a practice of restorative justice in schools. Organizations like the Center for Restoratives Approaches and Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, helped usher in these changes by organizing and educating families about the dangers of punitive school discipline policies and by demonstrating that “zero-tolerance” approaches have no utility. Restorative approaches offer an alternative for schools to begin building problem-solving skills while fostering a level of understanding and community that ultimately help to resolve conflict. This practice was acknowledged as a best practice by President Obama’s Supportive School Discipline Initiative, and has shown evidence of reducing suspension rates and improving school environments.

Now, why does all of this matter right now? It matters because of Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant and Henry Glover. It matters because the children and people disproportionately targeted by these policies are people of color and poor. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness speaks directly to how “tough on crime” laws gave birth to zero-tolerance school policies and are the “bird cages” that house children as they learn to be criminalized and move through the school-to-prison pipeline. Rather than schools being conduits of hope and educational opportunity they serve as the triage for prisons. So, it matters because these policies become the very systems that carries out prejudice notions. Schools have had parents inherit trust – trust that their children are safe, respected, and valued. As every Baltimore and Ferguson continue to publically playout, the trust needed to sustain schools is slowly being chipped away. Parents and students alike are outraged that schools and police – two entities that share very different values – have such similar missions. Zero-tolerance then, has become code for “black men are not allowed, period”, and as the trend indicates, black women and girls aren’t too far behind. Throughout the country, black men and boys, whether in the classroom or not, are targets for punitive treatment by both schools and law enforcement. So, yes, it matters because we here in New Orleans have an opportunity that before things erupt we can change policies, procedures, school and city culture, and behaviors. Yes, it matters because we can do better.




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