Will hysteria over Sandy Hook exacerbate the school to prison pipeline?
Sandy Hook has understandably horrified the country and put school’s everywhere on edge. But taking it out on a little kids isn’t going to make schools safer.
That didn’t stop administrators at Mount Carmel Area Elementary School in Pennsylvania from issuing a 10-day suspension to a five-year old girl for making a ”terroristic threat“. You might be asking what the fuck a kindergardener could possibly say to strike Osama bin Ladin-like fear into the hearts of her educators. It turns out that she told her friend they should shoot each other with a Hello Kitty bubble gun because, duh, bubbles are awesome.
Fifth grader Melody Valentin got in big trouble at her South Philadelphia elementary school when she was caught with piece of paper shaped like a gun. School authorities responded by yelling at Melody and searching her in front of her class, which led her peers to call her a “murderer.” In case that wasn’t traumatic enough, she was threatened with arrest.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time hysteria has trumped common sense after an episode of school violence. This same panic took root following highly publicized school shootings in the 1990s, with Columbine being the most horrific. Legislators at the local, state and federal level responded by introducing “zero-tolerance” policies in schools around the country. They were convinced that harsh punishments for even the most minor infractions were necessary to deter youth violence and prevent the next school massacre.
As a result, the number of suspensions and expulsions tripled from 1.7 million (3.7 percent of all students) in 1974 to over 3.3 million (6.8 percent of all students) in 2006. And it’s not as though children are more delinquent today than they were in 1974 since less than one in 10 suspensions and expulsions are for violent infractions. And the more time kids spend out of school, the more likely they are to drop out and end up in the criminal justice system.
These same policymakers also believed that stationing more armed officers in schools would help fix the problem. So between 1997 and 2007 the presence of school police officers, or school resource officers as they’re often called, increased 37 percent.
These new policies may have temporarily eased the anxieties of mostly white middle and upper class parents, but much like the “tough on crime” laws pushed by asshole lawmakers in the ’80s and ’90s, there’s no evidence that zero tolerance made schools safer. The same holds true for armed school guards, which by the way were present at Columbine and Virginia Tech, where two of the nation’s deadliest school shootings took place. What we do know zero tolerance and armed guards is that they manage to funnel a whole lot of black and brown kids and kids with mental disabilities out of school and into the criminal justice system, a process better known as the “school-to-prison pipeline“.
Nowadays, what should be considered age-appropriate childhood behavior, like firing spitballs, throwing temper tantrums and doodling on a desk, can get a kid suspended, expelled, handcuffed, or worse, arrested and imprisoned.
Ironically, just one day before the Sandy Hook massacre, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened it’s first ever hearing on ending the school-to-prison pipeline. Most apparent was that the negative impacts of zero tolerance and armed guards in school are not evenly distributed. Almost all of the young people who spoke to the Committee about their experience came from impoverished inner city neighborhoods, as if to demonstrate how poor kids of color are bearing the brunt of policies pushed by predominantly white policymakers whose suburban constituents think zero tolerance and school police officers will shield their kids from potential violence. As the Washington Post noted about the hearing:
[Edward] Ward, a recent high school graduate from Chicago, recalled classmates suspended for failing to wear ID badges and security officers patrolling hallways. Arrests were so common that a police processing center was created on campus “so they could book students then and there,” he said at the hearing Wednesday.
Suspended students “would disappear for days,” Ward said, “and when they got kicked out, they would disappear for weeks.” He recounted the story of a cousin suspended so many times he dropped out.
Even as an honor student, Ward said, “I felt constantly in a state of alert, afraid to make even the smallest mistake.”
….Assistant Education Secretary Deborah Delisle noted that African American students are more than 31/2 times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white peers. Students with disabilities are twice as likely to be removed as non-disabled peers.
“It raises substantial concerns,” she said, citing the case of a black kindergartner who drew a five-day suspension for setting off a fire alarm, while a white ninth-grader facing the same infraction in the same district was suspended for one day.
It’s such a shame that just as lawmakers were finally beginning to give a shit about the school-to-prison pipeline, the NRA has successfully turn the focus to armed guards. As a result, the media mostly ignored a report released by a group of civil rights organizations last week that reveals the abuses Mississippi public school student face at the hands of armed guards:
The report…found that in one Mississippi school district, 33 of every 1,000 children were arrested or referred to juvenile detention centers; that in another, such referrals included second and third graders; and that in yet another, only 4 percent of the law enforcement referrals were for felony-level behavior, the most often cited offense being “disorderly conduct.”
…In addition to statistics, the report described episodes in which a child was taken home by the police for wearing shoes that violated the dress code, and a school where misbehaving students were handcuffed for infractions as minor as not wearing a belt.
…In August, the Justice Department released a letter of findings charging that the police in Meridian routinely arrested children at schools without probable cause, merely on the referral of school personnel. The letter found that students had been incarcerated for “dress code violations, flatulence, profanity and disrespect.”
You’d think by now we’d be capable of thinking clearly about actual solutions to these routine shootings. But instead the same old ideas are being floated. The same week this report was released, Mississippi Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves suggested the state spend $7.5 million on hiring even more police officers to monitor public school campuses.
Keep your fingers crossed that voices of reason prevail this time around.