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When We Criminalize Students, It’s African-American Kids Who Suffer the Consequences

Zero-tolerance policies were intended to curb the war on drugs in the 1980s. More than 30 years later, they’re still being used — and they’re criminalizing black students at a rapid rate.

By Jamila Osman


(Photo: Ludi/Pixabay)

During my first year as a classroom teacher, one of my supervisors told me that my students should not see me smile until Christmas. This is not new advice: It is an old saw that has been passed on to new teachers for years. The logic is that students will not take a friendly teacher seriously, and thus, in order to start the year off on the right foot, students should know unequivocally who runs the show.

Our cultural preoccupation with punishment has had disastrous implications for our schools, from disparate and racialized discipline outcomes to the funneling of more and more students directly from the classroom into the criminal justice system. When our interactions with students are predicated on maintaining authority and administering punishment, we forfeit the ability to form authentic and meaningful relationships with the very people we are supposed to serve.

I found my supervisor’s advice disheartening. I did not choose to teach because I wanted to be the boss, I chose to teach because I wanted students to realize their own power and influence. As I went through my teacher training program I was far from naive; in the face of institutionalized racism, rampant structural poverty, and an ever-widening opportunity gap, I knew the work I was committing to do was not going to be easy. As part of my teacher training, the bulk of my assigned readings and discussions centered around the topic of classroom management. Classroom management is generally understood to mean “the process by which teachers and schools create and maintain appropriate behavior of students in classroom settings.” Despite being couched in academic terminology, our discussions on classroom management were, ultimately, about asserting power and control over students. The language of liberalism in education is an insidious and Orwellian doublespeak: We are not to “punish” students; we are to give them consequences, although the two are only semantically different.

As jails and prisons swell with black offenders, black students are disciplined at rates exorbitantly higher than their white counterparts.

At the root of classroom management are three basic questions: Who has power in a classroom setting? How is that power enforced? And how should students who violate the classroom code of conduct be dealt with? These are not by any means new questions; they mirror the rhetoric of crime and punishment in our society. Politicians still run on tough-on-crime platforms in order to exploit public fear of a dangerous and violent criminal class that needs to be punished. In a culture as highly punitive as ours, it comes as no surprise that our obsession with punishment has seeped into the way our schools are run. From its inception, this country has had a penchant for punishment as a tool for controlling behavior. For much of our history, corporal punishment has been widely accepted in schools, and even today the practice is still legal in 19 states.

When teachers are arbiters of punishment, each and every student is seen as a potential criminal. While our preoccupation with punishment has ramifications for all students, students of color are particularly impacted. There is a stark racial component to school discipline. According to the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, in the 2014–15 school year, black students were suspended and expelled at rates three times higher than their peers, often for the exact same offenses. As jails and prisons swell with black offenders, black students are disciplined at rates exorbitantly higher than their white counterparts.

The correlation between race and implementation of discipline is startling. Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate and author of The New Jim Crow, says the education system and the criminal justice system in this country are terrifyingly intertwined. In an interview with Rethinking Schools, she says:

Many people imagine that zero tolerance rhetoric emerged within the school environment, but it’s not true. In fact, the Advancement Project published a report showing that one of the earliest examples of zero tolerance language in school discipline manuals was a cut-and-paste job from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration manual. The wave of punitiveness that washed over the United States with the rise of the drug war and the get tough movement really flooded our schools.

Despite the catastrophic legacy of President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs in the 1970s, we have continued to emulate this model of reactionary politics in our nation’s schools. Thanks to the popularity of zero-tolerance policies in the 1980s and the subsequent rise of police officers on school campuses, schools have become spaces antithetical to the purpose they are supposed to serve: Instead of being hubs of enlightenment and democracy, they are spaces ruled by authoritarianism, governed with an iron fist. There is a correlation between the rise of punitive zero-tolerance policies and the rise of suspension and expulsion rates, particularly for students of color. “Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia,” a 2011 report by Youth United for Change, gives voice to a few of the many students impacted by zero-tolerance policies nationwide, such as Robert, a 5th grader who wore to school an old pair of jeans without noticing his Boy Scout pocketknife still in the pocket. When the knife fell out of his pocket in gym class, Robert willingly claimed ownership of it, and was promptly placed in police custody within minutes, before being arrested, suspended, and sent to a disciplinary school.

As an increasing number of schools outsource discipline issues to in-house police officers, the line between what is a teachable moment and what is a criminal offense becomes increasingly blurry. Contact with law enforcement at a young age increases the probability of future police contact, suspension, expulsion, dropping out, and incarceration.

Alfie Kohn, an education researcher, has written extensively about the psychological impact of punishment in our schools. In his groundbreaking essay “Beyond Discipline,” he challenges the conventional wisdom of classroom management, and makes the case that students cannot learn in an environment dictated by fear and control:

Assertive Discipline, after all, is essentially a collection of bribes and threats whose purpose is to enforce rules that the teacher alone devises and imposes. The point is to get the trains to run on time in the classroom, never mind whom they run over. Everything, including the feelings of students, must be sacrificed to the imperative of obedience.

Punishment breeds a culture of compliance and non-thinking. We must democratize our classrooms, and give students a genuine say in how they operate. When students have a voice in how their classrooms function, they will be more engaged, reflective, and invested in the process of creating a positive and enriching learning environment.

Educators must begin to think critically about the coercive nature of punishment. Instead of mirroring the oppressive and violent nature of the state, schools should be spaces where we do the revolutionary work of creating a better world.We cannot see students as potential criminals and rabble rousers; we must see them as dreamers and scholars, budding scientists and artists, aspiring doctors and writers. We must afford students the compassion and love to grow and learn from the myriad mistakes they will undoubtedly make.

As students go back to school in the coming weeks, school administrations across the country will claim they strive to be a safe space for all students. For many students, these assurances will ring hollow. Schools, unlike any other social institution, have the greatest potential for fostering the ideals of a just and democratic society. They must be places where we challenge the racism and inequality of the existing social order, not where we further enforce it.

So how do we teach students to be responsible, thoughtful, compassionate members of society? The solution is simple: We model those values in our classrooms.