According to the Washington Post, “Virginia schools refer misbehaving students to law enforcement agencies at nearly triple the national rate.” At a time where students are punished for even the slightest offense (like a 13 year old in Albuquerque getting sent to a resource officer for burping in class),  it begs one question: do we treat our students truly like students, or more like potential inmates? We have reached a time in our education and justice system where there are specially trained officers catering solely to schools. As time passes, less school issues are being dealt with by teachers and principals, as before, and more problems are being handled by law enforcement.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, Virginia’s referral rate of 16 for every 1,000 students leads the nation. The national rate is six referrals per 1,000 students. The center analyzed U.S. Department of Education data from the 2011-2012 school year. In Virginia and nationally, the center concluded, black and special-needs children are being referred to law enforcement at a disproportionate rate.

We are more frequently than ever seeing students punished for minor infractions, or traits out of their own control. In Lynchburg, an autistic child, aged 12, was charged with assault after struggling in the arms of an officer. Countless other unreasonable punishments have occurred–we have seen children expelled for carving on their desks, punished for disagreements with their teachers, and more commonly than not, children of other races are facing more repercussions over their white classmates.

At the time that the nation’s zero-tolerance policies began, our punishments seemed reasonable. School shootings have only increased in the past decade, in 2014, there were more school shootings total than in the previous two years combined. Unfortunately, we have not found a solution to the problems that our nation’s students face. Our zero-tolerance policies have left relatively innocent children to be punished, while we have not had success in lowering the dangers students face.

Throughout the nation, cities and states are beginning to notice our policies are not helping.

NASP has identified three areas of focus when it comes to replacing zero tolerance with a more holistic and effective disciplinary approach: violence prevention, early intervention, and social skills training and behavioral support.

While we have seen an increase of officers assigned strictly to schools, other schools are taking a different approach. Ideally, the holistic approach will involve a student’s intervention to include their teachers, parents, siblings, and social workers. While in the past decade, we have seen students being sent to court or severely punished, areas that are rethinking our nation’s punishment methods are sending troubled youths to behavior intervention programs rather than courts. These methods to treating student struggles are the ideal that the school-to-prison pipeline will cease to exist.

as it stands now, such policies clearly increase dropout and arrest rates, and, in cases like Chicago, are contributing to “school deserts,” where students have nowhere to go thanks to a combination of zero tolerance policies and school closures.

In a nation where we spend over triple the amount on each prison inmate than we do per student, we see that the justice system has become big business rather than justice. When more schools notice that the zero-tolerance policy is punishing innocent students, or students that commit minor infractions, or students simply because they are of a different race or mental-state, we can hopefully move towards the holistic approach. While every theory needs a trial, and the holistic approach may have its flaws, the zero-tolerance policy has lasted long enough. Only in its beginning stages, the holistic approach has already decreased drop out rates in a city as large as Chicago. If we spend more time and money on our students rather than trying to make them into criminals for the money machine that is the prison system, we will not see as high of graduation rates as we saw in the past. The holistic approach is a time for our education system to try to be optimistic, and a time for our students to receive attention and care, not a court room and a punishment.


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