September 29 2019
At six years old, Salecia Johnson, an African American kindergartener at an elementary school in Georgia, was handcuffed and brought to a police station for a temper tantrum. When the policemen’s actions were questioned, they cited criminal law used against adults, stating that Salecia had “actively resist[ed] and [fought].”
Possibly the most frightening part of Salecia’s story is that she is not alone. What happened to Salecia that day is being done to thousands of students - primarily those of color - all around the country. This systematic failure to see children as children and act accordingly plays a crucial part in the school-to-prison pipeline: a term used to describe how harsh (and often biased) treatment of disadvantaged students leads to criminal activity.
One way schools justify this kind of treatment is by citing “zero-tolerance” policies. According to the National Clearinghouse on Supportive School Discipline, "zero tolerance refers to school discipline policies and practices that mandate predetermined consequences, [which are] typically severe, punitive and exclusionary (e.g., out of school suspension and expulsion), in response to specific types of student misbehavior—regardless of the context or rationale for the behavior." These rules require severe consequences that do not take into account individual needs or circumstances. Additionally, the policies seem to often be enforced with racial basis: statistics have shown that, although African-American students make up 16% of public schools, zero tolerance policies target them disproportionately: 42% of all suspensions are of black students, and the likelihood of suspension or expulsion is 3 times higher than white students.
The harmful effects of zero tolerance in the classroom are all too real for Alexa Gonzalez, a twelve-year-old Latina girl who wrote that she loved her friends on a desk with an erasable marker. Justified by the zero tolerance policy, Alexa’s school treated her erasable drawing as a case of vandalism. Alexa Gonzalez was handcuffed, taken to her local police station, and held there for hours. Alexa’s treatment is not only the story of zero tolerance policies in America; it is the epitome of the brutalization that contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Even when the behavior is the same, punishments disproportionately affect African Americans in the classroom. Expert Jason Okonofua, a psychology professor at the University of California, outlines this disproportion by referencing implicit bias in studies on teachers. He determined, through his extensive research, that students whose names appeared to be non-white received harsher punishments from teachers, even when their behavior was the same as their white counterparts. This implicit bias among educators can become life-changing when zero tolerance policies are enacted and law enforcement gets involved.
So what’s the solution to the school-to-prison pipeline? One answer is restorative justice. Restorative justice is a method of dealing with wrongdoings that emphasizes taking responsibility for your actions while putting your time and energy into making the situation better for the victims. Restorative justice accounts for a separation between school discipline and law enforcement -- therefore dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline --, and it requires case by case discernment, which in exchange acknowledges the uniqueness of every situation. Once a rational consequence has been reached, the student who exhibited the misbehavior works to fix their actions by apologizing to the victim, participating in community service, and reflecting on their actions. By implementing restorative justice policies, American schools can begin mending the damage caused by the zero tolerance policy - and make stories like Salecia’s and Alexa’s a thing of the past.
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