Zero-tolerance for kids is a fast and slippery slope to lock-up

Many people assume that when kids get into trouble while they are in school that they are sent to the principal’s office, held after school, or maybe even suspended. Another assumption is that school “zero tolerance” policies refer to situations in which student or faculty safety is at issue. But “zero tolerance” is actually a much stricter standard than many realize. It provides no opportunity for explanation, offers no permission for extraordinary circumstances, and often allow consequences that defy common sense.

It is not my intention to undermine the serious concerns we should all have as a result of numerous school shootings across the country. But as scary as they are, that is not the primary reason there are an average of 70,000 youth behind bars on any given day in America. The reality is that juvenile justice systems across the country are full of youth who have been referred from their schools. And the referrals are not for what you might think based on the violent stories we hear on the news. Unbeknownst to many, most referrals to juvenile court are for typical youth misbehavior such as minor fighting, being verbally disrespectful to a teacher, being playfully disruptive or even for just missing school.

Take for example a simple school fight between two 13-year-olds. Not one involving weapons – just a simple disagreement between two young people where one or both lose their composure and end up hitting each other with their hands, or throwing an object that makes contact with the other. Even if neither is physically harmed, they likely will be charged with some version of “assault.” Instead of resolving such a matter at school, both individuals (the initiator and the responder) may end up being taken to juvenile court.

Kids who are brought to the attention of the juvenile justice system are typically handcuffed, processed and brought before a judge. If they are lucky, maybe their case gets diverted so that they avoid formal processing. But if they are charged with a crime, they then enter a complicated web of scheduled court appearances, probation supervision, reporting requirements and are forced to agree to strict compliance with an unrealistic set of expectations (so unrealistic that most kids violate within a matter of weeks or months). Parents who want to be involved have no choice but to miss work (sometimes jeopardizing their jobs) to accompany their child to court, often on numerous occasions while the matter is pending – but this is another matter which should be considered separately.

More often than not, the youth referred to court end up being put on probation or community supervision. Probation, while seemingly an appropriate alternative to incarceration, often serves as a slippery slope or a gateway to stiffer penalties. The typical probation contract is so extensive that it virtually can be impossible to comply with; especially for youth who are struggling with trauma, family issues, or other challenges. In addition to regular check-ins with the assigned probation officer, youth have to promise to attend school, not be late, comply with a curfew, obey all rules of the house, and not get into any additional trouble. Adults likely would agree that such requirements seem appropriate. The challenge, however, lies in the response to a youth who slips up — which given their young age is inevitable.

When a youth on probation makes a mistake, the consequence is often incarceration. Whether they are late for curfew, miss an appointment, talk back to their parent, disagree with a step-parent, smoke marijuana, miss or are late to school, they face being locked up. And the reality from the data is that many youth are in fact confined for such infractions – even if not for the first violation (although there are number of situations where this is the case) more often than not after a repeated error. Seventy-five percent of youth currently incarcerated are there for non-violent offenses, including technical violations of probation. This means that a different response by schools to youth misbehavior could literally mean the difference between a young person getting a diploma or ending up on a fast track to jail.

Does anyone know what happened to the days when kids could be kids, when a school fight was just a school fight and when accountability was appropriate? When did adults and school officials decide it was acceptable to overreact to the slightest infraction, disrespectful comment or rude behavior from a teenager? Why exactly do we need “zero tolerance” especially when it puts so many kids into harm’s way? Who else thinks that it’s time for us to adopt a more common sense approach?

Tanya Washington is a former civil rights attorney and social justice advocate who seeks better outcomes for vulnerable youth/ Join the discussion at http://www.justicecorner.com

Follow Tanya on Twitter: @twashesq/ email her at justicecornerblog@gmail.com

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