Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track
Susan Notes: I hope everyone reads this important report. There is much to respond to, but one thing occurs to me immediately: By criminalizing student behavior that in past decades wouldn't even have merited a detention, schools find a way to get probable low scorers off their books. Get these young people into the justice system, and the schools can wash their hands of any pretense of educating them. So higher graduation rates and higher test scores come on the backs of these young people put on the jailhouse track.
By Advancement Project in partnership with
Padres and Jovenes Unidos
Southwest Youth Collaborative
Children & Family Justice Center of Northwestern University School of Law
Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse
to Jailhouse Track, is Advancement Project's
second examination of the emergence of zero
tolerance school discipline policies and how
these policies have pushed students away
from an academic track to a future in the
juvenile justice system. School districts have
teamed up with law enforcement to create this
"schoolhouse to jailhouse track" by imposing a
"double dose" of punishment - suspensions or
expulsions and a trip to the juvenile court - for one act of childish misconduct.
This report is intended to ignite a dialogue
about the negative side effects of the use of
law and order approaches to address typical
student misbehavior, and to encourage efforts
toward reform. Education on Lockdown profiles three school districts -Denver, Chicago and Palm Beach County - where this track is in full operation and where communities are beginning to realize and address its adverse impact.
This report dissects the schoolhouse to jailhouse track by examining:
• How zero tolerance, a policy originally
designed to address the most serious
misconduct, morphed into a "take no
prisoners" approach to school discipline
issues and created a direct track into the
juvenile and criminal justice systems;
• The expanding role of law enforcement
measures in schools;
• The disparate impact of these practices on
students of color; and
• How the track is unfolding in: Denver,
Chicago, and Palm Beach County.
The first section of Education on Lockdown zeros in on zero tolerance with a discussion of the evolution of zero tolerance in public schools.
Zero tolerance, a term taken from the war on
drugs (where law enforcement agencies swiftly
and harshly responded to drug offenders), was
initiated in school districts in numerous states
during a juvenile crime wave in the late 1980's.
Congress later passed the Gun-Free Schools Act
of 1994, which required states to enact laws
mandating that schools expel any student found
on school property with a fi rearm. Many states,
however, went above and beyond the federal
mandate, passing laws that required expulsion
or suspension for the possession of all weapons,
drugs and other serious violations on or around
In recent years, traditional school punishments
have been supplemented by criminal penalties.
Even non-violent acts are now subject to citations (tickets) or arrests and referrals to juvenile or criminal courts. In fact, in many instances the charges (e.g., battery for pouring a carton of chocolate milk over the head of a classmate) would never constitute a crime if an adult were involved. Schools have unreasonably raised the stakes for certain adolescent behaviors.
In the second section of the report we examine the changing role of police in schools.
There is much debate about how to improve
school safety. Many districts have taken the
easiest route – increasing the number of police
patrolling hallways and giving them a greater
role in disciplinary matters. In a growing number of schools, police are hired on a full-time basis.
These officers are often assigned from local
police departments to augment the school
security staff. In other places, such as Houston, Palm Beach County, and Los Angeles, school districts have established their own police force.
Also, in an attempt to improve safety, schools
have beefed up security measures to include:
cameras, metal detectors, tasers, canine units,
and biometric hand readers.
While these measures produce a perception of safety, there is little or no evidence that they create safer learning environments or change disruptive behaviors. There is however, evidence that these tactics unnecessarily thrust more youth into an unforgiving penal system.
The third section of the report examines the
disproportionate impact that zero tolerance
policies have on children of color.
Racial disparities in school discipline have been documented for over thirty years. With the
increased presence of police in public schools,
mandatory punishments, and the expanded use
of suspensions and expulsions, students of color
are getting pushed out or thrown out of schools
at alarming rates. While anecdotes help to tell
the schoolhouse to jailhouse story, the data
included in this report also illustrates the grim picture students of color face in school.
Across the board, the data shows that Black
and Latino students are more likely than their
White peers to be arrested in school, regardless
of the demographics of the school's enrollment.
Researchers conclude that racial disparities
cannot be accounted for by the socioeconomic
status of students. Nor is there any evidence
that Black and Latino students misbehave more
than their White peers. Race does, however,
correlate with the severity of the punishment
imposed with students of color receiving harsher
punishments for less severe behavior.
The fourth section of the report tells the tale of three school districts by mapping their
schoolhouse to jailhouse tracks.
Like most school districts across the country,
Denver Public Schools (DPS) has drawn a line in
the sand and is taking a zero tolerance approach
to school discipline by using both school
disciplinary measures and police involvement
to address even the most trivial acts of student
The dramatic rise in expulsions, suspensions, and referrals to law enforcement (through citations (tickets) and arrests) in DPS demonstrates that it is zealously cracking down on youthful behaviors. For example, between 2000 and 2004, DPS experienced a 71% increase in the
number of student referrals to law enforcement.
Most of these referrals were for non-violent,
subjective behavior such as bullying and use of
obscenities. Students of color are the target of
these over zealous discipline practices. Black
and Latino students are 70% more likely to be
disciplined (suspended, expelled, or ticketed)
than their White peers.
In Denver, school referrals to law enforcement
typically result in a visit to juvenile court. These students are often placed on probation for up to a year or sent to a diversion program. Many parents, students and court offi cials believe that minor offenses should be resolved by the schools and not the juvenile court. The research shows that DPS's practice of shifting the responsibility
of school discipline to school police and juvenile courts simply does not work, and more needs to be done to keep students in school and out of the juvenile justice system.
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has become
infamous for its harsh zero tolerance policies.
Although there is no verified positive impact
on safety, these policies have resulted in tens- of-thousands of student suspensions and an
increasing number of expulsions. The trend in
Chicago has been diffi cult to document, largely
because of the District's refusal to provide data to advocates. Where data has been published, it is often conflicting or inexplicable. However, even by its own numbers, CPS has aggressively ignited a schoolhouse to jailhouse track that is ravaging this generation of youth.
For example, in 2003 over 8,000 students were
arrested in CPS. More than 40% of these arrests
were for simple assaults or batteries which
involve no serious injuries or weapons and are
often nothing more than threats or minor fights.
Seventy-seven (77%) of the arrests were of Black
students even though they constituted only 50%
of the student enrollment.
Most of these cases are so minor that institutions beyond the schoolhouse doors dismiss them or send the youth involved to diversion programs. While it appears that the State's Attorney and Chicago's juvenile court system often spare youths from the devastation of the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track by diverting most cases out of court, CPS is working at odds with the courts – aggressively suspending, expelling, and insisting on the arrest of youths regardless of fundamental
principles of fairness and necessity.
PALM BEACH COUNTY, FLORIDA
In Advancement Project's initial report documenting the unrelenting criminalization of students, we noted the continuing problem of the overuse of suspensions and the rising number of arrests by Palm Beach County School District Police for minor conduct. Public defenders and Legal Aid attorneys provided accounts that demonstrated that all too often students in Palm Beach County were being thrown into the juvenile justice system for instances that should have been handled by schools.
In the almost two years since the release of
the first report, the number of arrests has only
slightly declined; complaints remain that too
many youth are being arrested for petty acts that would never result in an arrest and prosecution in the real world. With 1,105 arrests of students in 2003, 64% of these arrests were Black youth, who account for only 29% of enrollment.
Further, it appears that the Palm Beach County
State's Attorney's office continues to go over
board in prosecuting harmless behavior –
assisting in the needless criminalization of Palm Beach County youth.
In the final analysis:
Schools continue to be safe havens for America's
children. Rare occurrences of serious school
violence, however, have caused school districts
around the country to grapple with the issue of
school safety. While many agree that schools
should be safe and conducive to learning; the
way to achieve these goals is very much in
Right now, schools are overreaching by inappropriately adopting law enforcement strategies that are leading students unnecessarily into the juvenile or criminal justice systems. Through zero tolerance school discipline policies, some schools seem to be opting to discard students who are perceived as
troublemakers and who could potentially disrupt
learning. These strategies are being employed
without regard for teaching youths how to change
behavior, using punishments that fi t the conduct, or acknowledging adolescent development.
These issues are not easy. Of course, school
safety is important, however, a delicate balancing act must be applied. Research has shown that prevention and intervention programs are the most effective methods for addressing school violence and creating a productive learning environment. It is also more cost effective than hurling students into the juvenile justice system. State and local policy makers must examine the effectiveness of their school discipline policies and programs and take steps toward reforming this failing system. Some initial solutions follow:
• School districts should limit suspensions,
expulsions and arrests to conduct that pose
a serious threat to safety.
• Schools should adopt clear and concise
school discipline guidelines that provide
students and parents with notice of
potential disciplinary actions for specifi c
• School districts should establish discipline
oversight committees to handle complaints
about school discipline practices and
review discipline and arrest statistics to
ensure that discipline is meted out in a fair,
• Schools should adopt and provide
adequate resources for school violence
prevention and intervention programs that
have been assessed for effectiveness.
• Schools districts need funding resources
expand their staff of guidance counselors
and social workers who should provide
counseling and support to students
experiencing behavior and academic
• School police should receive special
training on how to effectively interact with
youths and children with disabilities.
The Advancement Project
INDEX OF RESEARCH THAT COUNTS