Monday, January 5, 2009

Schoolhouse to jailhouse

If you read SmallTalk regularly, you know that one of my biggest beefs with Arne Duncan has been Chicago's zero-tolerance policies and the district's approach to school security, an approach which has led to approximately 9,000 school arrests each year, according to the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse report. This includes nearly 1,000 arrests of kids 12-years-old or younger. About 75% of those students taken to jail from CPS classrooms are African-American.

Of course, Chicago isn't the only district carrying out such policies. An editorial in yesterday's NYT, "The Principal's Office First," takes off from an ACLU study of school arrests in Connecticut which found similar practices.
It found that in West Hartford and East Hartford, minorities were far more likely to be arrested than white students who committed the same infraction. In Hartford’s overwhelmingly minority school system, police arrested students at disturbingly young ages: 86 primary grade children in a two-year period, including 13 in grades three or below.
The long-term fallout, including increased dropout rates and recidivism, from this ineffective and discriminatory zero-tolerance and mass-arrests approach to school discipline is almost too horrible to contemplate. I'm hoping that the new administration (yes, with Duncan as its educational leader) will see the light on this and help put an end to these barbaric school district policies, policies which were encouraged and institutionalized under the Bush administration.


  1. Mike--I'm with you, although I am not hopeful of change on this issue coming from the national level. While Bush encouraged, it was the local folks who picked up the ball and ran with it. The fact that some kids were arrested and others not, despite identical behavior, points to some individual judgement at the local level. The Bush policies just provided an excuse--sorry lady, our hands are tied. We had to arrest/expel/suspend/burn your child at the stake--whatever.

  2. I disagree. I have worked as an adminstrator in a school with a minority population in which 1 in every 4 students had an office referral. Parent contact/counselors/social workers/probation officers/judges were not able to influence the culture of the students we tried to serve.

  3. School officials need to be Fair, Firm and Consistent in their application of all school policies. I am thankful that there is a line where enough is enough. There are a multiple reasons why students / people act the way they do. School Administrators have to make tough decisions daily. If it is a Zero Tolerance offense it most likely is a violation of the law and once the police are notified if they are taken to jail so be it...

  4. Alan,

    Does "so be it..." mean that we don't care what the consequences are--to the child or to society?

  5. Mike,
    I care....I care about what happens to the child who commits the offense but I also care and am responsible for the other students in the building...In my district (Weapons / Drugs / Battery on a school employee / Making bomb threats)are zero tolerance offenses...If a student commits one of these acts they should be held accountable...We have the duty to protect all students and create the most conducive environment possible so the school can take place...School districts and the judicial system have tools and services in place to offer help / assistance to these offenders...

  6. The considerable ambivalence associated with the "so be it" mindset has been at the root of many important policy decisions associated with school violence and discipline - and zero tolerance in particular. What is truly detrimental about that way of thinking is its failure to consider what the outcome of a simple cost/benefit analysis would be. If you compare the costs associated with zero tolerance policies that result in suspension/expulsion/referrals/arrests (there are many...lost of academic instructional time, socio-emotional problems, stress on families to name a few) with benefits (there are few, paricularly among minority pops) it does not take a policy analyst to conclude that the school to prison pipeline opened by zero tolerance policies is not only harmful to kids, but has major social costs as well. Sadly, the very same child arrested for drug possession in 9th grade is more likely to become a repeat offender once he enters the juvenile justice system than to he is if a more rehabilitative approach were to have been taken.

  7. "School districts and the judicial system have tools and services in place to offer help / assistance to these offenders..."

    This is one of the fallacies that allows the continuation of the cradle to prison pipeline. The judicial system does not have tools an services in place to help. Furthermore, the population that schools send off have a much higher incidence of learning/emotional/mental health disabilities, and the judicial system has far less resources to respond to these issues than do the public schools (where the resources are also not always the best).

    Anonymous said "Parent contact/counselors/social workers/probation officers/judges were not able to influence the culture of the students..." This would, to my mind, argue in the direction of doing something different. The culture of the school is the most accessable to change, and yet is almost invisible to the folks who work in schools, and in many cases fosters all kinds of unhealthy, unsafe, developmentally negative features of human interaction. I hate to be about busting anyone's bubble, but most of the real solutions will have to be carried out within schools and by teachers.

    Parents/counselors/social workers can (and most likely will) be supportive--but the work has to happen within the context of the school.

  8. My son has been arrested for refusing to get out of his seat and go to lunch, refusing to fill out a math worksheet, etc, etc. We were forced by the county atttorney to homeschool him because the district's stated goal was to have him institutionalized and they were going to continue to have him arrested until he was court-ordered, since I would not do so voluntarily. I nearly lost my job having to leave work suddenly to go to the police station whenever it suited his teacher. I could go on at length, but suffice to say that having children arrested creates consequences for families that are devastating. I agree solutions are within the grasp of teachers, and one of those is that teachers need to realize they are NOT better/smarter/more important than a child's family, just because they have the power of the police behind them. The relationship does NOT have to be adversarial.

  9. Good discussion on a difficult topic. I have been an educator for almost 30 years. The first 13 years were in the field of special education and I dealt with kids that displayed self destructive behaviors similar to the ones that are at the root of these school-related arrests. My question is: What about the right of the 80% or more of the kids that do not display these behaviors that are victimized by the kids that do. The victimization ranges from the literal hundreds of hours of "down time" from instruction that happens when one, two, or three chronic misbehavior of these disturbed children "take over" the classroom through their self destructive behavior to literal assault and violent bullying. These kids bully the teachers as well as their innocent classmates!!! While my heart breaks for these troubled kids, my heart goes out even more to the kid that comes from the same troubled neighborhood that behaves properly and still tries to get educated despite coming from the same problematic social context that his classmate with agreesive/destructive behavior do. Who will stand up for the urban poor kid that really wants an education? If we could at least "control" the behavior of the small number of kids that are really destructive to the learning environment, then we could do something about education in our urban and rural poor public schools. In the small city near where I live only 11% tested "proficient" in math and only 25% are reading at grade level. A dear friend has taught in the high school in this small city district and a small percentage of students literally "run" the school and ruin the environment for everyone, students and teachers alike. This small percentage of students need help, but why should innocent kids suffer greatly also because of them?

  10. Regarding the Anonymous parent: Arrest ought to be the absolute last resort. It sounds like there is a much bigger problem at work here. I am curious as to whether your son was rebellious and bored in school, or has an identified or undiagnosed situation such as autism. What kind of an effort did the school make to get to the cause of your son's various refusals?

    It is pretty well established that many children in jail have various neuro-emotional issues and that schools (and families) face real difficulty in dealing with them. Some schools deem these students disruptive, and respond to their behaviors with punishment, isolation and arrest. What students in such cases need is serious individual planning which includes the family, committed efforts at inclusion as well as individual support, and where necessary, self-contained special education classes and therapeutic programs. All too often, students with special needs fall into the dragnet of "zero tolerance."
    - Show quoted text -

  11. I believe that there was a study done in NYC of the kinds of things that kids were being arrested for in schools. The "resource officers" were being used to remove kids for such violations as having a cell phone or breaking dress code. In that case it was teachers who stood up and said that this did not make sense.

    But the difficulty with the all too common sentiments expressed above by the thirty year teacher is that the far too often amount to scapegoating (in the name of "standing up for" the kids who "really want an education") In a school where 90% are performing below grade level in math and 75% below grade level in reading, we need to acknowledge that there are some enormous problems--far more than you can hang on 2 or 3 kids per class, or on any kids. In fact, it almost begs one to lead ALL of the kids in revolt to demand an adequate education and to start looking for where the resources are going that are supposed to be used to educate them.

    When a small percentage of kids are "running" the school (amok, one would assume), there must also be a large percentage of adults who have surrendered their responsibilities. Far too often I have see the passive aggressive approach of ignoring/overlooking behavior unless/until there is a severe enough infraction to warrant removal. Even worse are adults who succeed in escalating problem behavior. Frequently those same kids who are arrested for their misbehavior are frequent victims themselves of bullying behavior (by students and adults) within the school context.

  12. Zero tolerance policies express frustration with disciplinary policies (inherently reactive) that did not change overall conduct, and replaced them with disciplinary policies (inherently reactive) that cannot change overall conduct.

    They satisfy an anger, a yearning to "do something," to make sure that "something is done," yet utterly fall short by making impossible the thoughtful application of discipline in a case by case basis.

    I have seen cases, many cases, where action was appropriate, yet administrators, school officials, failed to act. But zero tolerance doesn't adjust this, rather it guarantees that they overreact.

    That's three paragraphs to say "I agree with Mike."


  13. Thanks for this, Mike. Here in NYC, young people put together a series of videos documenting how they do not feel safe in their schools, in large part due to the over-policing in NYC schools and the School to Prison Pipeline. Check out their work here:

    Related to this, youth researchers in NYC came together as Youth Researchers for a New Education System, and put together a report based on surveys of fellow young people about how to change schools to include the voices of young people and reflect our common human rights:

    Important stuff, let's hope there's change coming.

    Dana Bennis

  14. This is the comment of an immigrant parent-teacher and my biggest concern is that kids are raising kids and these parents don't know how to educate their children, it's too late after 10 years old, and children will appreciate discipline with respect. Too many parents expend their days working long hours instead of creating a relationship and getting to know their children.
    Every parent who have a kindergarten who has many referrals of discipline THAT'S AN ALERT, and that parent should have to spend time educating themselves in how to become a better parent instead of paying the consequences 10 years later.


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