Zero Tolerance is ‘Zero Common Sense’

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Harsh school disciplinary policies are the main reason why tens of thousands of students of color across the U.S.—most of them from poverty backgrounds—eventually land behind bars, says the superintendent of the nation's second largest school system.

John Deasy, who heads the Los Angeles Unified School District, blamed “zero tolerance” policies on adolescent misbehavior for what he said was a skewed approach to education and juvenile justice.

“Zero tolerance really means zero common sense,” he told a group of national journalists attending a symposium Monday at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Deasy, who pioneered major reforms in Los Angeles' $8 billion school system, including ending student suspensions for minor infractions such as bringing cigarettes to class or showing up late, said the tough disciplinary measures adapted by many school boards around the country have been counterproductive.

While some actions, such as bringing hard drugs into school or striking a teacher or classmate deserve to be penalized, criminalizing many other teen behaviors can destroy their chances of leading productive lives, he said.

Deasy argued that such policies unfairly impact African-American and Latino youth in his city who, once they are stigmatized by a police record, find themselves on a path that ends in the criminal justice system.

Speaking in blunt terms, Deasy charged that Americans “were sold a bill of goods two decades ago” that in order to achieve public safety, “whole populations” needed to be incarcerated.

“(America's) high rate of incarceration is not an act of nature,” Deasy said. “We chose to not defund prisons and (to not) fund preschools.”

Since the Los Angeles school system instituted its policy changes, the number of annual student suspensions dropped from 48,000 to 8,000—and graduation rates went up, he said.

Deasy's critics point out that the city's graduation rates exclude thousands of students who have been transferred to alternative programs.

And despite his successes, Deasy is in the midst of a fight with members of his own school board, due to issues ranging from a bungled $1.3 billion contract for Apple iPads, to continued strife with the district's teachers' union over class sizes and staffing levels.

Local business and civic groups, however, have rallied Deasy’s defense, who previously led school systems in Santa Monica CA and Prince George's County MD_and served as Deputy Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Progress or Paralysis?

He was the keynote speaker at a two-day conference assessing the progress of juvenile justice reforms around the country. The symposium, “Kids, Crime & Justice: Progress or Paralysis?” focused on how law enforcement, school officials and social service practitioners can apply research and best practices to dealing with troubled youth.

Other speakers said earlier Monday that a key factor in reducing the number of youths jailed or placed in detention is the recognition that adolescents who misbehave don't necessarily belong in the criminal justice system.

“We need to think about ways to help kids in their communities, rather than how to punish kids when we don't like their behavior,” said Shaena Fazal, national policy director for the non-profit Youth Advocate Programs, Inc.

In the past year, news reports and academic studies have revealed startling conditions for juveniles at adult and youth detention facilities, systemic hurdles faced by teens whose parents are imprisoned, and institutional biases against students with behavioral issues.

Throughout the day, researchers, advocates and government officials returned to the idea that incarceration is an adult consequence too often prescribed for teenage indiscretions.

About 29 percent of the 1.65 million teens arrested in 2010 were girls, according to Mary Marx, president and CEO of the Pace Center for Girls.

“The typical girl referred to the juvenile justice system: she's nonviolent but high needs,” Marx said.

Often, incarceration is used as the state-ordered solution for youths who misbehave because they suffer from mental illness, according to Elizabeth Cauffman, a professor of sociology and social behavior, at the University of California Irvine School of Social Ecology.

“The juvenile justice system and the criminal justice system [have] become the surrogate mental health system,” Cauffman said.

Baltimore Councilman Brandon Scott pointed out that even in the neighborhoods most impacted by mass incarceration, it's hard to convince residents to take a chance on prison alternatives.

“A lot of people are of afraid of these kids,” Scott said. “That kind of pressure is what keeps this system in place.”

School to Prison Pipeline

It also keeps the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” in place, the conference was told.

The “pipeline” is described by the New York Civil Liberties Union, an advocacy group, as “a nationwide system of local, state and federal education and public safety policies that pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system.”

At the Symposium, Michael Harris, a senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, said the support systems for disadvantaged youths can't be boiled down to either school or prison.

“Teachers and school personnel are overwhelmed with the demands that society is placing on them; they're under-resourced but more and more is demanded of them,” Harris said.

Instead, he pointed to local multi-agency collaborations, similar to what Deasy called for in Los Angeles, which establish a protocol for schools, juvenile courts, police and social workers to refer most teen offenders to alternative programs.

“Teenage behavior hasn't changed,” Harris said. “How adults respond to it is what has to change.”

Graham Kates is deputy managing editor of The Crime Report. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates. He welcomes comments from readers.

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