DOJ to Schools: Stop Sending Kids to Jail for Breaking the Rules

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This post first appeared at ThinkProgress.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct.” — Eric Holder
The Department of Justice issued new guidance Wednesday aimed at curbing harsh, discriminatory over-punishment of school discipline violations. The materials disseminated with the Department of Education aim to increase legal compliance after DOJ filed several lawsuits against cities that dole out criminal punishment to students for violations as minor as dress code violations.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” US Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday.

These policies have trapped students in what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline, which funnels students out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system. This pipeline has had a dramatic disproportionate impact on black students with disabilities. Fueling this trend are “zero tolerance” policies that impose harsh punishment for minor violations, and oftentimes remove school officials’ discretion. In some states such as Michigan, zero tolerance is mandated by a state law. The DOJ’s announcement is supported by reports and research that paint a picture of perverse, counter-productive school disciplinary policy:

Dara Van Antwerp, the school resource officer at Panther Run Elementary School in Pembroke Pines, Fla., walks the hallways of the school. Antwerp will be permanently stationed on campus despite the decline in crime in this middle-class community. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

Kids are arrested for wearing the wrong color socks and starting food fights. In Meridian, Miss., it was school officials – not police – who determined who should be arrested. Schools seeking to discipline students called the police, and police policy was to arrest all children referred to the agency, according to a Department of Justice lawsuit that was settled last March. The lawsuit called the the city’s police department a de facto “taxi service” shuttling students from school to juvenile detention centers. In Texas, another DOJ lawsuit highlighted one county’s policy of filing automatic criminal charges against students for truancy. And in Florida, Broward County agreed in November to reform its policy after a spate of arrests for rule violations as minor as starting a food fight.

One in five black boys have received an out-of-school suspension, according to 2012 Department of Education data. And black students with disabilities are three times more likely to be expelled, a punishment that sets kids in zero-tolerance systems up for later criminal punishment. Other regional statistics tell a similar story. In Chicago, for example, three-fourths of kids arrested in public school were black. This disparate impact perpetuates a cycle of criminal justice over-exposure that follows many African-Americans throughout their lives and yields astronomical incarceration rates.

Research suggests almost half of all black males are arrested by age 23. Years of zero tolerance and over-policing policies have manifest themselves in data: an estimated 49 percent of all young black males now enter the job market with an arrest record, as well as 44 percent of Hispanic males. These arrests not only impose obstacles to a lifetime of success; they also clog the criminal justice system. In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year, a juvenile county chief judge in Georgia lamented that one-third of cases before him were students arrested not because they posed a threat, but because they “make adults mad.”

Those who have police contact early in life are more likely to commit crimes later. Several recent studies have confirmed that locking kids up not only diverts kids away from education; it also makes them more likely to commit more crimes later. In one study, students in gang-prevention programs in seven cities were followed over the course of seven years. Some students were subject to random stops by police, even when they hadn’t done anything wrong, while others were not. Those who had police contact early on committed five more delinquent acts on average, and were more likely to rationalize their behavior. Another study in Chicago found that those locked up as youths were more likely to commit crimes later, even as compared to other youths who had committed similar offenses but were not incarcerated.

More than half of youths are detained for offenses that do not threaten public safety. Data collected this summer by the National Juvenile Justice Network and Texas Public Policy Foundation found that, as of 2010, “almost 60 percent of confined youth in the US (41,877) were still detained and imprisoned for offenses that do not pose substantial threats to public safety. These include misdemeanors, drug use, non-criminal or status offenses (e.g., curfew violations, truancy, running away), failure to show up for parole meetings and breaking school rules.” The study also found that the rate of juvenile detentions had dropped significantly from an all-time high in 2000, but that policies of over-criminalizing student discipline continue to prevail.

WATCH VIDEO: Henry Giroux explains the “school-to-prison” pipeline trend.

Justice Department intervention in several notorious jurisdictions has already prompted some reform. But zero-tolerance policies remain popular. In Michigan, a student was recently arrested, expelled for 180 days, and placed on house arrest over allegations that he started a physical altercation with his teacher by grabbing a confiscated note from her hand. Months later, a judge agreed to wipe his record clean, but the district superintendent lamented that she lacked the power to do anything in the interim, saying, “It is up to state policymakers to revise these zero tolerance laws, and until that happens, we will continue to follow our legal mandates as they are.”

Nicole Flatow is the deputy editor of ThinkProgress Justice.
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  • Anonymous

    We need to call these “zero tolerance” policies by a more accurate namd. They are _intolerance_ policies.

  • Anonymous

    I think it is flat out abuse and neglect.

  • James

    I have seen the school jump thru hoops to keep a white kid from getting a police record but call the cops in a heart beat on a kid of color for the same offense

  • Robert Scalzi

    so glad I am not a kid today …. had these laws been in effect 35 yrs ago …. who knows where I would be today

  • Anonymous

    Someone starts or participates in a food fight, the punishment should fit the crime. They have to scrub down the lunch room. They are disruptive in class, this is important because it interferes with the learning of others. Here they should have to make up the whole class after school. Perhaps the parent should have to sit there with them. If students wear the wrong clothes to school, their parents should have to bring in the correct clothing. Jail? No!
    Violence? Suspension.
    Weapons? Expulsion.

  • Anonymous

    If you normalize jail at an early age for minor infractions, kids grow to
    believe there is no difference between minor infractions and major ones
    because they all lead to the same end.

    This is the same problem with drug education as it exists in the schools. If a kid is told that pot and cocaine or heroin are the same thing, once that kid tries pot and has a relatively benign experience, they have no problem moving on to drugs that most know are harder on the mind and body. They have been told there is no difference, so why not?

  • nan

    Sounds like some of these schools should have a dress code, or even uniforms. Colors can implicate gang affiliation, which is the bigger problem. Food fights? They happen. Perhaps the schools need more adult supervision, which means if your assignment is lunch supervision, the teacher needs to be on time (lunchroom), and engaged with the students for their supervision. If they aren’t, then it’s an administration problem.

  • WakingCall3

    prison for profit; could that have anything to do with this? Home school if you can, I wouldn’t send a child of mine to the public schools, as they stand. at all Communities of civic minded people should band together and create small home schools, and include the disadvantaged as well;;;; all this, until the school system gets its act together and serves the people in educating ( not forced memorization,etc,,mind numbing) but teaching how to think, not what to think..

  • don quixote

    I like how they excluded the information caucasian percentage with an arrest record when they join the job market. its probably very close to the black and Latino and that’s why they don’t include it in the article

  • Guest

    White kids are suspended three times the rate of Asian-Americans. That must mean teachers are racist against whites.

  • Anonymous

    I heard the moon is made of cheese so it must be true.

  • Anonymous

    The original article is claiming that the root cause of individuals breaking rules as adults is the discipline experienced by the individuals while they are exhibiting similar rule breaking behaviors as children. This ignores the far more simple and logical explanation that individuals who choose to break rules as children continue with similar choices and behaviors at older ages.

  • Quinten Alderman

    Gotta keep those for profit prisons profitable!

  • sejones

    I have absolutely no argument with what’s said in this article, but it leaves much UNsaid. I’m a 16-year veteran of public high schools, where my class sizes have gradually increased from 25 kids to 36 kids. I don’t believe in arbitrarily incarcerating kids, but I certainly do believe that the student who could not sit still, even for the three minutes I gave instructions for an activity, who carved swastikas into his desk, the wall, the whiteboard behind him, and other students’ possessions, who cursed all class long, who attempted to sell drugs to other students in class, who carried and frequently retrieved from his pocket a knife with a considerable blade, and who smelled strongly of pot most of the class periods he attended, is better off in another setting. However, he didn’t qualify for special education (he wasn’t disabled in any way), our behavioral modification program (his problem was drugs and crazy parents), or tracking under the truancy laws (his mom would write him a note whenever he asked for one). He needed drug intervention, but the district funding was cut for the drug treatment program. He needed his mom to stop selling drugs out of the house, but that was the year nearly a quarter of our police force were laid off and she didn’t sell “big enough quantities.” He needed intensive psychotherapy, but his mom had no health insurance. Was he Latino? Yes. Was THAT his problem? Oh, hell no. Did I have him removed from my classroom repeatedly? Oh, hell yes. Why? Certainly not because I hate kids of color. I had him removed from my classroom by the police because WHEN HE WAS INCARCERATED, HE WAS RECEIVING TREATMENT. Stop blaming school personnel for trickle-down effects from crappy public funding decisions. We have 35-40 kids in our classrooms, and that one kid (or two, or three) who are causing disruptions or danger are almost always beyond school resources. We pass those kids off to others so that they will receive treatment and so the rest of the kids can learn. Period. Teachers and other school personnel don’t get into the profession for the underwhelming salary, the time off (you’ll have to tell me when THAT becomes available), or the negative public image. They get into it to attempt to change the future. They look at kids and see a legacy – not a “White” legacy, but a legacy of intelligence, consideration, dedication, enthusiasm, humor, and a thousand other things that will make this world a better place to be. Those things, Ms. Flatow, are color blind.