Friday, June 24, 2011

Zero Tolerance: Models of Taking and Criminalization

No one could have anticipated that 1999 would be such a tumultuous year.  As a teenager, I remember watching news coverage of the Columbine massacre.   Not more than a few weeks after Columbine, my own school received a bomb threat and parents held their children at home for fear of the possible result.  This one event, although not isolated, has changed the climate of schools forever.  Being from a rural school, changes began happening in 1999 that were unheard of for our district: drug dog searches, police removing “dangerous” students, and random locker searches.  When I came to Philadelphia and started working in schools around the city, I realized that what was abnormal for me was normal for urban youth.   

The Advancement Project’s report, Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia: Denying Education Opportunities and creating a pathway to Prison, indicates that increased security precautions in schools has not been helpful.  The impact of Columbine was not only felt in my small town. “Schools around the nation began adopting harsh, unforgiving policies that emphasized the long-term exclusion of students violating school rules, and according to data collected, punishment for same behaviors are far more harsh currently than even a few years ago” (Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia, The Advancement Project).  Fear of massive school violence has caused educators and administrators to take action through the implementation of these harsh punishments, but these decisions have negatively impacted things other than school violence.  Expulsions have skyrocketed and so has dropout rates and arrest rates.  

I feel that the most disheartening change in the school system has been increased reliance on police and law enforcement for disciplinary issues.  “Within just a four year span, it became about two-and-a-half times more likely that police would be called for the same category of behavior” (Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia, the Advancement Project).  In the past school counselors, school administration and even classroom teachers were called to address discipline.  Given the relationship of these school personnel to students, they were in a position to more productively address behavior, getting at the root causes.  Students should be given resources to face their own issues causing disruption and overcome.  They should not be expected to independently reach these results through punishment.  Overall, schools have begun to implement models of taking instead of models of giving.  I consider models of taking to be: no second chances, imparting labels on students that follow them through the education ranks, implementing punishments that have negative long-term implications, and disabling students from making positive changes to their lives.  On the other hand, I consider models of giving to be: student empowerment, giving student the tools and coping skills to succeed, addressing negative patterns proactively to prevent failure later in life, and encouraging students through the means of meaningful relationships with caring adults.  

Point Blank: Philadelphia’s youth are being criminalized.  Politicians, community members, religious leaders, and parents are crying, “Why are young people not the way they 'used' to be!”  Have we considered that many youth have had negative encounters with a law enforcement office far earlier than those of the past?  Have we considered that youth are now labeled as “trouble-makers” when, in the past, they would have been labeled as “kids being kids?”  Part of the reason youth are viewed so negatively is school security teams are treating youth like street criminals instead of youth.   

People within the criminal justice systems are far less likely to be trained in youth development and asset-based approaches than those in youth helping professionals.  "Scared straight” tactics used for hardened criminals are being applied to youth.  Interestingly enough, “Funds spent on school security are substantially more than what is spent on school nurses/health practitioners, nearly double the expenditures for parent and community support, and over three times as much as the amount spent on school psychologists” (Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia, The Advancement Project).  I feel like the research has helped bring some of the missing puzzle pieces to the table.  All in all, allocated funds indicate that we would rather develop students into incarcerated adults rather than productive citizens.  

Some recommendations by the Advancement Project are keenly relevant to the question for Philadelphia and urban districts of: “What now?”  Their recommendations include:

  • Creating coalitions of community stakeholders to rewrite school discipline policies
  • Reallocated funding from security measures towards school helping professions
  • Implement evidence-based practices such as asset-based development
  • Implementation of district-wide training programs for staff including security personnel on the negative consequences of zero tolerance   
  • Implement accountability structures
  • Clarify the roles and responsibilities of the Philadelphia Police Department
  • Create public Reporting systems for school discipline data

Do you have any recommendations?

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