01/10/2014

New federal guidelines are welcome step toward stopping 'school-to-prison pipeline' that ruins lives of children

Finally, our politicians are waking up to the fact that our children need a helping hand, not a pair of handcuffs. 

They’ve recognized the devastating consequences of the lunacy that has gripped our schools: the idea that children should be tossed out of school and, quite often, into jail for typical adolescent misbehavior.

I’m talking about the “zero tolerance” policies that have been in vogue for the past two decades as schools sought to “get tough” on kids.

This week, the Obama administration announced new guidelines that aim to stop this “school-to-prison pipeline” – one that ruins the lives of thousands of children who do little more than act up in school.

The reality is that, in the Deep South at least, these policies carry on the terrible legacy of Jim Crow. All of the evidence shows that African-American and Latino children are far more likely than white children to face suspension, expulsion and even jail for misconduct in school. That holds true, also, for children with disabilities.

Many of these are disadvantaged children who need to be in the classroom. Instead, they’re being funneled into juvenile detention, where many are exposed to brutality and deprivation, making them more likely to drop out and end up in adult prisons.

They’re children like our client in Escambia County, Florida, an African-American student from a poor household who attended a magnet school. He went to the wrong lunchroom one morning for his free breakfast, just like a lot of white kids did, but was arrested for trespassing and then suspended from school.

They’re children like our 14-year-old client in Meridian, Mississippi, who was removed from school and spent several days in a juvenile detention facility for having too many pockets on his pants – a violation of the school dress code.

They’re children like the high school student in Mobile, Alabama, who was suspended for 50 days because his shirt was untucked.

There are countless other examples across America.

The vast majority of children thrown out of or arrested in school have done nothing to deserve such treatment. Many times they have not even committed crimes, but rather violations of school policies – infractions that should be handled in the classroom, not in the police station.

We can and must do better for our children.

At the SPLC, we’re part of a strong nationwide movement to stop these practices and to institute new models of school discipline to keep children in the classroom, off the streets and out of jail.

The administration’s plan is a giant step in the right direction. I hope that the Department of Education will make this a priority and follow through with its commitment.

As James Baldwin said, “For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become.”