Zero Tolerance: A Pathway from School to Prison?

USF researchers explore the criminalization of in-school behavior and over-representation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system.


USF Assistant Professor Zorka Karanxha and graduate student Eric S. Hall.   Photo: Aimee Blodgett | USF News


By Barbara Melendez

USF News


TAMPA, Fla. (July 10, 2012) – No child or parent imagines school serving as a pathway to prison.


Yet University of South Florida graduate student Eric S. Hall and Assistant Professor Zorka Karanxha have found this to be a consequence of Zero Tolerance school policies – for certain groups of students.


In their article “School Today, Jail Tomorrow: The Impact of Zero Tolerance on the Over-Representation of Minority Youth in the Juvenile System,” published in Power Play: A journal of Educational Justice, Hall and Karanxha provide a critical examination of how such policies are applied and what happens to the young people who all-too often find themselves victimized by them.  


“In essence, we are witnessing students who misbehave in school, doing things that are not a threat to public safety, being arrested and punished in the same way as those students who constitute actual safety threats,” they said in the publication.


“This practice results in the funneling of many future contributing members of our society into juvenile facilities while perpetuating the marginalization of our nation’s most at-risk students.”


Their illuminating article and in-depth research grew out of an assigned paper.


Karanxha teaches graduate courses in the College of Education that focus on educational leadership, culturally relevant leadership for social justice and organizational theory.  Hall, who has nearly two decades of experience working with juvenile justice, had grown alarmed by what he has witnessed for many of the children served in this system. He handed in a paper on zero tolerance in Karanxha’s organizational theory class.  The content moved Karanxha to ask him to turn it into a journal article and offered her collaboration. He agreed.


“I could see that the policies that were landing these kids in the juvenile justice system and keeping them in were on their way to serious long-term negative implications,” Hall said. 


To draw attention to what they characterize as a “youth incarceration crisis,” the two researchers marshaled dozens of sources – studies and statistics in addition to the narratives of two young men – to show a pattern of “intended and unintended consequences” of zero tolerance policies.


Hall provided the narratives of two students – one named Kevin and the other, Ron – he encountered while working in the juvenile justice system. The narratives are about two young African American males who are also special education students, which according to research cited in the Journal of Exceptional Children, are the most overly-represented demographic in the juvenile system. Both provide moving testimony to the tragic consequences of misguided overzealous punishment.


Throughout their article, the two authors show how the criminalizing of low-level infractions and minor violence – of the sort that were once easily handled or ignored by schools – and the growing presence of law enforcement “resource officers,” combined with harsh disciplinary practices such as suspension and expulsion, has led to increasing arrests and worse.


According to Karanxha, “The picture that emerges illustrates Henry Giroux’s view of youth of color as ‘expendable,’ ‘disposable’ and ‘outcasts.’ Zero tolerance policy in public education continues to be fed by distrust in youth, diminished rights and freedoms of youth in public schools, and racism that is reflected in ‘widespread stereotypical images of Black youth as super-predators and Black culture as the culture of criminality.’”


She added, “Studies showed that schools with high minority enrollment and high poverty are the places that have high levels of usage of metal detectors, surveillance cameras and security personnel even though there is no correlation with rates of incidents.


“What we then have is male students of color being pushed out of mainstream educational environments and into the juvenile justice system because of zero tolerance policy and its implementation practices.  A combination of forces such as state policies, school district policies, law enforcement agencies and the courts punish youth of color for nonviolent infractions such as being late for school, excessive absences or just being obstinate and willful or talking back.”


The article focuses on how such excessive punishment has been directed at some of the students who have the greatest need for nurturing and support.  They convincingly argue for moving “away from punitive methods towards more developmental and educational approaches applied to student discipline and misbehavior.”


What are students to learn about where they belong in society when their schools take on a prison-like atmosphere and where arrests are the norm?  The authors write, “…they are learning their place in our society based on this process for sorting children.”


That place is problematic.


Hall and Karanxha discovered minority children and their parents have the most to worry about in this regard – especially those who are African-American and male. They point out cases publicized in the media as glaring examples of “policy gone awry,” such as the 2006 killing of a 14-year-old boy in a boot camp and the arrest of a five-year-old African American girl in the throes of a tantrum.


The related statistics are revealing.


The two researchers report that, “according to a study conducted by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice in 2008, Black youth were two and a half times higher in the referral rate to the juvenile justice system than White youth. This represents a nine percent increase from 2004.  Black males and females accounted for 47 percent of all school related referrals to the juvenile justice system in 2007, while only representing 22 percent of the overall student population in the state.


“Another important and disconcerting fact is that in Florida, the vast majority – 91 percent – of counties had Black youth disproportionately overrepresented at the referral stage of the juvenile justice system. School-related arrests are disproportionately higher for Black students and they lead an instant pathway from our public schools to our jails and juvenile justice system,” Karanxha said. “According to data, harsh discipline is disproportionately directed at African American males when engaging in similar behaviors as their White counterparts. And once out of school, they found it harder to be readmitted.”


She went on to say, “Nationally, studies by the American Bar Association and National Bar Association show similar trends for African American girls who make up nearly half of those in secure detention, and they are also far less likely than their White counterparts to have their cases dismissed. While seven out of ten cases involving White girls were dismissed, the figure is three out of ten for African American girls.


“Furthermore, according to the 2010 Advancement Project, ‘from 2002 to 2007, Black students experienced a 33 percent increase in expulsions with a six percent increase in Latino expulsions, while White students witnessed a two percent decrease in expulsions.’”


In addition, the authors point out, “Black male high school dropouts experience a 60 percent risk of imprisonment, and to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline we must first tackle the school-based disciplinary practices associated with Zero Tolerance. Once pushed out of the classroom and into a system that is difficult to escape, hope diminishes.  And this goes on each and every day.”


This practice of suspension and expulsion for minority youth as a means of enforcing school discipline mirrors the racial disproportionality evident in the juvenile and correctional systems in the U.S. For example, research from other scholars shows that “African American youths make up 16 percent of the nation’s population and 45 percent of the juvenile arrests in the United States,” they reported.


Hall and Karanxha hope to see movement in a different direction – prevention of school-based arrests and support to stay in school. Criminal justice research from the past six decades shows educational achievement is “one of the strongest and most ‘well-established predictors of desistance from criminal offending for youth.’”


The authors also note the need for the diversification of the teaching workforce that continues to be 85 percent white females. 


Karanxha states, “This is not to say that White, female teachers are to blame for this issue, but it does require greater efforts to diversify our instructional personnel, and an increased emphasis on culturally relevant teaching practices in teacher preparation programs so that these teaching practices are incorporated into classrooms, where most expulsions and arrests are initiated. 


“Concomitantly, leadership preparation programs need to be more proactive in their efforts to increase the diversity of students and to prepare future leaders who have the framework and skills to build culturally-based inclusive schools that attend to the diverse needs of all students.”


Hall said, “The common goal for both public schools and the juvenile system must be success, which can be measured by increased graduation rates and reduced incarceration.  This finding necessitates continuous professional development for teachers working in diverse settings, including juvenile justice and alternative schools.”


Reaching this goal requires making a different kind of commitment to education through the adoption of school-based strategies and state-wide policy, the authors say.


“We’ve seen some reports of success with the use of positive behavioral supports and intensive interventions, particularly in the alternative schools where many of these young people are placed,” Hall said.  “It’s no surprise that research shows a strong link between poor performance in school and antisocial behaviors of the sort that lead to delinquency.  Services that curtail entry into the juvenile system in the first place and provide supports can lead to high school graduation and higher education.”


While they understand the need to “continue the establishment of school-based practices that maintain safety,” the authors hope to see parents and the community involved in the process of ending the drive away from school and into the juvenile system.


In Florida, the alarming drop out and incarceration rates of Black youth led to the adoption and amendment of the zero tolerance statute 1006.13 in 2009.


Then-Governor Charlie Crist, the legislature and local groups pushed for this new policy making it clear that misconduct, though inappropriate, does not equate to criminal behavior and that administration of discipline must apply equally to all students regardless of their economic status, race or disability. It also encourages districts to utilize alternatives to expulsion.


Based on the statute, “The law was never intended to be applied to petty acts of misconduct and misdemeanors, minor fights and disturbances,” said Hall.


This change may have already started to make a difference.


“It’s too early to tell but school-based arrests were down for the 2010/2011 school year by 11 percent and there has been a 10 percent reduction in juvenile crime with fewer young people being placed in juvenile detention centers,” Hall said, based on state reports.  “Various agencies have been working on this issue and so since 2005 we’ve also seen a 34 percent drop in referral rates to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice System based on their published data.”


Hall and Karanxha report that the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice “has conducted studies and gathered data and last year took steps focused on removing all youth placed in residential facilities due to misdemeanor offenses and placing them back in their local communities where they can best be served and supported. And in recent years, there has also been growing collaboration between the Florida Department of Education and the Department of Juvenile Justice to enhance services and supports which can contribute to reductions in incarceration. But significant work remains to be done to redirect minority youth from the juvenile system to mainstream education and re-integration in public schools.”


They conclude, “The youth of today are not the enemy, but our future. Our commitment to them, their safety and their success is evident by the way we treat, nurture, and respect each child. …we need to close the pathway that takes students from schools today, and places them in jails tomorrow.”


Hall and Karanxha presented the zero tolerance research at the Critical Race Studies in Education Association’s conference held at Columbia University in early June.  They found their work was “well attended and well received.”


Their work addressing this issue does not end with this research project.


Karanxha, in collaboration with Vonzell Agosto, also an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership & Policy Studies, is conducting research on leadership preparation for educational equity. Hall, a doctoral candidate in educational leadership and policy studies, is working on his dissertation.  He plans to continue his work on policy and practices in the non-traditional educational settings of juvenile justice and alternative schools across the country.  Hall’s efforts are to secure strong collaborative partnerships between juvenile justice and educational agencies in an attempt to promote the adoption of interventions and supports that reduce the incarceration rates and marginalization of the nation’s young people.


“I’m always glad to see research papers take on this powerful role of advancing scholarship on real world issues,” Karanxha said.  “That’s an important part of what we’re teaching.”


Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563.