In the 1970s and 1980s, zero tolerance polices began creeping into our laws. The new ‘tough on crime’ attitude was popular among people who feared the high crime being promoted on the nightly news, largely associated with an increase in drug use. By the late 1980s, this attitude had crept into our schools, seeing an increase in school suspensions and expulsions, mainly among black and Latino students. After the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, schools updated their zero polices to include anything that would even promote the idea of violence, such as a child miming shooting a gun with his hand.
Minority kids have suffered the most under these policies.
Many researchers and organizations have highlighted the “school to prison pipeline,” a national trend in which schools have essentially funneled children from the school system into the criminal justice system. Many school infractions are dealt with by first calling law enforcement, even for simple things like tardiness or getting in an argument with another student. This affects the kids’ morale, causing them to lose interest in school, leading to an increase in dropouts and to a life with limited choices and, more often than not, prison.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has been a big part of that pipeline.
The second largest school district in the United States has had zero tolerance policies going back 20 years. With more than 640,000 students and 1,100 schools, LAUSD also has the largest school police force in the country with 350 officers. The district’s zero tolerance policies have resulted in the most suspensions than any district in the state. In 2012, there were 700,000 suspensions recorded in California.
Almost half of these suspensions were for “willful defiance.”
The zero tolerance policy allows for immediate suspension for any act of willfully ignoring a direction of a teacher or school administrator. Whether it is to stop talking in class or wearing baggy pants, a student can be suspended for not complying. Talking back to a teacher could also result in a suspension, or if seemed particularly threatening, a call to law enforcement.
Kids were suspended for being kids.
In 2013, LAUSD became the first district in the nation to ban all suspensions related to willful defiance. As a result, the number of suspensions dropped by nearly 40 percent. All of this was part of a new look at zero tolerance policies and their effectiveness.
Studies show that they just haven’t worked.
In spite of the hopes, these policies had done the opposite of the intended goals. They have not created a climate more conducive to learning. In fact, misbehavior has seemed to increase, along with the number of suspensions. Crime did also not subside, making a difficult learning environment filled with fear.
Now, LAUSD has decided to focus instead on restorative justice.
Primarily used as a tool with criminal offenders, restorative justice (RJ) focuses on repairing the harm caused by a crime by highlighting the needs of the victim and the offender. Instead of having the law enforcement determine the punishment, the victim(s), community and the offender work at ways to heal the harm done, while at the same time making sure the offender takes responsibility for their actions. In a school setting, this philosophy often requires looking at the underlying causes that led to the offending behavior and dealing with them.
Beginning this year, LAUSD will not arrest or cite students for minor infractions, including possession o f alcohol or marijuana, or feuding with a fellow student. Instead they will refer students to administrators or counselors. The new policy outlines steps that include conferences with parents, drug counseling, or other interventions at off-site counseling centers. While there is latitude on how to deal with repeat offenses, these infractions will no longer result in an immediate court appearance or probation. Serious offenses and felonies will still be referred to law enforcement.
This change could result in a significant difference in the lives of students, especially students of color.
In the 2011-2012 school year, LAUSD had nearly 9,000 arrests or citations of students. Of those, 93 percent were black or Latino. Last school year, black students were one-third of the suspensions, even though they represent only 11 percent of the school population. By preventing these kids from being pushed out and isolated, the new policies create a more supportive environment, possibly leading to a reduction in dropouts and a more promising future.
When we stop criminalizing childhood, we increase the chance that more of them will become adults that contribute to society in a positive way.