Zero-tolerance drug policies were originally implemented in schools by then-president George W. Bush as a preventative program tied to the Nixon-introduced war on drugs. These policies were aimed to keep drugs and gangs out of public schools in the United States, but 28 years later, the system has become more of an exclusionary practice according to data collected by the ACLU of Arizona.
The policies “take students away from classroom instruction through suspensions, expulsions…” the report continues. Focus is then placed on kicking children out as opposed to counseling the child towards positive behavior. These practices are thus unintentionally fueling the school to prison pipeline, ACLU of Arizona spokesman Luis Avila said.
The school to prison pipeline is the system of “targeted” children, often of minority background or disabled, being pushed out of the classroom through suspensions and referrals. In turn, the children then feel personally attacked and may move towards violence, crime and drugs which could lead them to trouble with the law.
“Neither the parent or student feels the school cares,” said Maricopa County juvenile probation division Director Michael Bane.
Zero tolerance in schools has an amplified impact “on students of color [and] students with disabilities” said Laurel Bellow, former President of the American Bar Association, in a hearing for the United States Senate regarding the topic of the school to prison pipeline in 2012.
In Arizona, and Maricopa County specifically, American Indian students are disproportionately likely to be suspended from school compared to their peers according to the ACLU study released in August. An upcoming report by the ACLU has also found that students in special education are especially at risk, Avila said.
In national studies however, Avila states, African American boys are often the most targeted by the public school system.
According to Avila, parents are given the choice in Arizona as to what school their child attends, but often schools have a system of “getting rid of kids they do not want to teach.”
This systematic push of “targeted” children out of the classroom is done through often hasty or unwarranted citations and referrals given out by school administration.
The Maricopa County juvenile court system now has an opt-in program entitled CUTS for local schools aimed to “helping keep kids out of the system,” and thus suppressing the school to prison pipeline Bane said.
The court has four officers dedicated to school advocacy that help administration prevent hasty citations, Bane continued. This is done through on-site training by specialized officers as to when, why and how to administer referrals.
The CUTS program recommends a parent, student, administration and officer meeting before any citation is given in order to find the root of the issue Bane said.
“We have seen dramatic improvements,” especially in the most affected group, children aged 15-16 Bane said.
The Court Unified Truancy Suppression (CUTS) has a 96.6 percent success rate, defining success as a student who attended a conference that did not receive a truancy referral after six months, according to the Juvenile Court Data Book released in 2016.
Access to education is the key to social mobility, Avila said. Students who fall into the school to prison pipeline due to zero tolerance are often not given the chance to succeed. The Arizona Department of Education spokesperson could not be reached for comment about this issue.