Civil rights activists take aim at zero tolerance policies in schools, the so-called “school-to-prison” pipeline.

Schools have zero tolerance policies for students who cause trouble, but the Advancement project says the approach has failed to make Florida's schools safer. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

ORLANDO – Chaz P. Arnett says it all started with Columbine.
“When Columbine happened,” Arnett said, “that sent shock waves across the nation.”
On April 20, 1999, two senior students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, went to Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colorado, and embarked on a massacre, killing 12 students and one teacher, and injuring 21 other students. The pair then committed suicide.
This became known as the Columbine High School massacre, the fourth-deadliest school massacre in U.S. history.
Twelve years later, Arnett said, few people understand how this devastating attack has led to another tragic trend in the nation’s schools, what he called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
What Columbine ultimately produced, he said, was a series of strict zero tolerance security measures in the public schools, intended to make them safer and to protect students from similar violence.
But the policies have simply gone too far, said Arnett, a staff attorney with the Advancement Project. Today, he said, overly harsh school disciplinary policies are getting students expelled in alarming numbers, and many of them end up in the juvenile justice system – or in prison when they reach adult age.
“There has been a great investment in security measures in the schools,” Arnett said. “Zero tolerance discipline has been expanded to include minor behavior. It was estimated that each year, three million students get expelled.”
This needs to change, he said, or the state of Florida is writing off a tragic number of young people for very minor offenses that used to be handled internally – and not through expulsion or a referral to law enforcement.
Arnett took part in a panel discussion on Thursday about the impact of zero tolerance policies on young people. He spoke at a Town Hall meeting at the Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in South Orlando. The Town Hall meeting had been organized by state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.
Thompson said she wanted the community to understand the challenges confronting low income and minority communities in Central Florida today, and be proactive about looking for solutions, and change.
“Our power, our voice, always came through in our churches, and we are here in church today,” she said.
The Advancement Project is a national program based in Washington, founded in 1999 “by veteran civil rights lawyers who were looking for new ways to dismantle structural barriers to inclusion, secure racial equity, and expand opportunity for all,” the group’s web site notes. “We are an innovative civil rights law, policy, and communications ‘action tank’ that advances universal opportunity and a just democracy for those left behind in America. We believe that sustainable progress can be made when multiple tools — law, policy analysis, strategic communications, technology, and research —  are coordinated with grassroots movements.”
Arnett said one of their concerns has been Florida’s “get tough” approach to school discipline.
“We partner with community organizations and groups,” Arnett said, “and that’s how we became interested in Florida in particular.”
Zero tolerance, he said, has evolved into “strict rules or no second chances,” he said. “The question becomes, what does zero tolerance mean? It’s a set of practices and policies that do not take into account the individual circumstances of the student.”

Are schools in Orange County getting too strict when it comes to student discipline? The Advancement Project thinks so. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

And the approach is badly misguided, he said, because it harshly penalizes students for infractions that used to lead to a warning or detension or some other form of discipline that did not include expulsion.
Students today, he said, are no more dangerous, violent or sociopathic than in past decades. Only the approach to school discipline, he said, is different.
“I’m going to tell you something you may not want to hear,” he said. “Kids have not changed. I repeat that – kids have not changed. What I mean is I’m tired of people saying ‘You know kids today.’ Kids in essence have not changed.”
The Advancement Project notes that every year, tens of thousands of Florida students are pushed out of school and even criminalized for minor or trivial behavior. The state Legislature responded by passing a bill to limit law enforcement intervention in school discipline issues, but the Advancement Project notes that “While there has been some progress, the implementation of Florida’s zero tolerance law has fallen substantially short of what is necessary to address the problem.”
During the 2009-2010 school year, AP notes, there were 18,467 referrals to the Department of Juvenile Justice, the highest documented number of disciple referrals in the nation, and Orange County had 1,263 referrals out of a population of 90,401 students, one of the highest in the state.
The Advancement Project wants to require school districts to limit school-based arrests, citations, expulsions and disciplinary referrals to alternative schools. They also want school districts to be required to prove they are complying by submitting quarterly reports to the Florida Department of Education.
To learn more, log on to Advancement Project.

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