School Zero Tolerance Kills Dreams, Hurts the Economy

School Zero Tolerance Kills Dreams, Hurts the Economy

Story tools

A A AResize



At a time when competition for jobs is fierce and even entry-level positions require a high school or college degree, anyone without a high school diploma need not apply. Yet, each year, more than a million students in the United States leave high school without graduating.

Once assumed to be dropouts, many who leave are, in reality, pushed out.

They are casualties of punitive suspension and expulsion policies that rob students of their education for infractions as minor as being tardy, talking too loud, wearing flip flop sandals, or bringing a bottle of Advil to school.

The price of push out for students is high: it crushes their earning potential, destroys their dreams, and limits their ability to contribute economically to their communities. Many will be forced into the ranks of the unemployed, become trapped in poverty, or tangled in the justice system.

“These are our children, they deserve to go to school,” said Camille Odeh, executive director of the Southwest Youth Collaborative in Chicago. “This is a basic human rights issue.”

“Kids don’t want to be pushed out of school,” she said. “If they are doing something wrong, we have to look at the context. Maybe they don’t have the support system they need.”

The median income of a high school graduate is around $42,000, compared to about $23,000 for those who don’t graduate, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Over the course of a lifetime, that equals more than $630,000 in lost income for those without a diploma.

That’s if they can find a job at all.

In January, the Alliance for Excellent Education reported that the unemployment rate of people without a high school diploma was more than three times the rate of those with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
The cost to the economy is billions in lost earnings and taxes that could go toward Medicare and Social Security. According to the Center for American Progress, if even half of those students graduated, it would boost the nation with $7.6 billion in increased earnings, add $9.6 billion in economic growth and $713 million more in tax revenue – all in an average year.

Zero tolerance policies were created to keep guns and drugs out of schools, but are now used to keep control of students in overcrowded schools, to the point that the schools feel like prisons, and the students, like criminals.

“There is no denying that students do need discipline,” said Joao Da Silva, a spokesman for the national Dignity in Schools Campaign, based in New York, which advocates alternatives to zero tolerance policies and organizes against school pushout.

“What we see is that schools don’t make students feel welcome, are not inclusive and don’t make them feel like they have a future. Young people are treated in school like they are prisoners,” said Da Silva.

In Chicago, 11th grader Quabeeny Daniels was on the path to pushout.

When school officials found Daniels in the hallway during class time, they checked his attendance records and discovered he was often late getting to school. He was expelled.

Daniels said he walks 20 blocks to high school in Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood. If he oversleeps, he is late to his 7:30 a.m. class and not allowed in the door. Unable to attend class, he falls behind in his studies.

Generation Y, a youth action organization associated with the Southwest Youth Collaborative, worked with Daniels after his expulsion.

“He is very determined; we know that this is something he is concerned about,” said Cindy Ibarra of Generation Y.

Now back in school, Daniels is focused on being on time and raising his grades.

Ibarra said when students are simply suspended rather than given help in solving their problems, the conflicts remain when they return to school. Counseling, peer juries and peer circles that delve into their issues can help students find solutions. Other advocates say mediation, mental health services, and rewards for positive behavior also help students stay in school.

Pressure on public schools to excel in standardized testing is also a primary part of the pushout problem. Underachieving students are routinely suspended from school right before the tests.

“We will see schools suspend hundreds of students the weeks before standardized testing starts so they don’t take down the scores for the whole school,” said Ibarra.

“One of our young people, her grades weren’t all that good. A week before the test, they gave her an attendance record showing she had been tardy and told her not to come to school for finals,” said Ibarra.

Pushout is a crisis that can start in kindergarten and lead to prison. Many call it the school to prison pipeline.

In Texas, where the Dallas Independent School District spends $21 million a year for its own police force, officers give tickets to school children as young as six years old for being tardy or having a tantrum. Parents must pay the fines, or risk going to jail.

Rather than changing behavior, punitive school discipline criminalizes students with expulsions and referrals to alternative schools, pushing students out of school and often to the street economy of selling drugs or prostitution to survive.

“You can see very concretely the criminalization of our children,” said Allison Brim, with the Texas Organizing Project, which is working to change aggressive discipline policies.

Pushout also worries Lakashia Wallace. Her son, Joseph Wallace, a special education student in Dallas, was expelled from school five times in sixth grade.

“He has been sent home for some really frivolous stuff,” said his mother.

Now in 8th grade and at a smaller school, Joseph is thriving with a teacher who has taken an interest in him. But his mother is concerned about what will happen when he goes to high school next year. The school his older brother and sister attended has 4,700 students, and she is worried he will be pushed out.

However, some school districts are starting to recognize pushout as a problem.

The Los Angeles school district, which also has its own police force, recently changed its practice of handing out $240 truancy tickets – mostly to African-American and Latino students – after recognizing the connection with pushout.

Instead of turning tardiness into a criminal matter, officers now work with students to help them get to school on time.

“We all want to have safe schools,” said Anne Foster, executive director at Parents for Public Schools, based in Jackson, Miss. “But beyond that, if there is any policy that is not child-centered, not focused on educating students, then we are not doing what we need to be doing in public schools.”

Joyce Parker, executive director of Citizens for a Better Greenville is working with parents in her Mississippi community to raise awareness of pushout, educate school board members and support the election of leaders willing to change policies.

“When we raise these issues, we find that there are more people who feel like us, but might not be able to speak out,” said Parker.

Parker says too many schools are forgetting their most basic mandate: that all children have the right – not just the opportunity – to a quality education, and a right to be taught.

When Robert Holloway started high school in Greenville, he had two dreams: to play football and to graduate.

“I made it all the way to the 11th grade,” said Holloway, now 21 and built like a quarterback, with a head of long braids that brush his shoulders as he walks.

The path to pushout for Robert started in the fourth grade, when his teacher angrily paddled his palms with two rulers taped together until they went numb, his punishment for laughing in class.

“It shut him down. He was just sad all the time,” said his mother, Earlene Holloway.

Robert struggled with his studies, but he isn’t a slow learner. “When I had good teachers, I did well,” he said.

But, the stress he faced at school left Robert doubled over with stomach cramps in the morning when it was time to leave the house.

If he was a few seconds late for class, teachers would close the door in his face. He was constantly sent to the office for minor infractions. He was written up because his shirttail was hanging out, and another time because he was explaining to a classmate how to use the Internet.

“I knew that nine times out of 10, I was going to end up in trouble. I got tired of being in trouble for nothing I did,” he said.

Robert wasn’t the only student being pushed out. Earlene Holloway began advocating for her son and for scores of other students being written up or suspended for trivial matters.

“So many children in that school look like they have been broken up into pieces. It’s not like a school, it is like a correctional facility,” she said.

Sports kept Robert Holloway in school. He played on the varsity football team in 9th and 10th grade. Some thought he had professional potential.

“I loved being out on the field,” he said. “I know I could have made professional; I had scouts coming to look at me.”

But school became intolerable. Stressed to the breaking point, Robert left in the 11th grade school, his dreams derailed.

Robert said the support and encouragement of his family keep him going. He feels fortunate to work as a meter reader for the electric company, turning most of his paycheck over to his mother to help pay the bills.

For now, he sleeps on the couch in the living room of the small two-room apartment he shares with his parents and sister, studies to take the GED and holds on to his next dream: Robert Holloway plans to go to college.