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Zero tolerance in schools could lead to problems for students in future

June 6, 2012

In April, police arrested a 6-year-old girl at her school in Georgia after she threw a tantrum. Two years ago, police in New York removed a seventh grader from her school in handcuffs for doodling on her desk with a marker. Closer to home, police removed a 6-year-old boy from a Shelbyville, Ind., school after he allegedly kicked the school principal and threatened school administrators.

While these types of stories may be relatively uncommon in relation to the number of students nationwide, many groups with an eye on juvenile justice say “zero-tolerance” policies in schools may be creating more problems than they solve.

Disciplinary approach

In 2009, the Indiana State Bar Association hosted a “Summit on Racial Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System.” The 2010 report on that summit prepared by the ISBA Civil Rights of Children Committee said that zero tolerance in schools disproportionately affects youth of color and leads to increased delinquency and adult crime.

Russell Skiba, an Indiana University psychology professor who is director of the Equity Project, said zero-tolerance policies in schools are characterized by harsh consequences for certain behaviors, which in theory deters crime and protects other students.

“It is something that arose in the late ’80s and early ’90s when there was a real strong fear that youth violence in communities was also increased in schools,” Skiba said. “We’ve since learned that really isn’t the case, that violence in schools has remained pretty stable over the last 30 years.” But Skiba said the data about the effectiveness of school police is lacking.work-group

He mentioned the Impact Schools program in New York, which placed more than 100 police officers inside 12 schools known to have disciplinary problems. An analysis of data from that program found there was decreased attendance over time, an increase in the number of kids suspended and a decrease in the average achievements in that school.

Lack of data

Skiba and others often look to other states for examples of successful and failed disciplinary policies because Indiana lacks hard data on this subject.

In 2010, the Indiana Legislature passed House Enrolled Act 1193, a bill that created a Law Enforcement, School Policing and Youth Work Group. The 26-member group was assigned several tasks, including the study and recommendation of training curricula to the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy. It was also supposed to research how zero-tolerance policies in Indiana affect youth involvement in the juvenile justice system and prepare an annual report on a wide range of related findings

Two years later, that work group has yet to hold its first meeting. Its initial chair left the state, and Gov. Mitch Daniels never appointed another. Asked when he planned to appoint a chair, Daniels’ spokeswoman Jane Jankowski said in an email that she could not provide a timeline for when a chair might be appointed. The work group expires in 2015.

Lisa Thurau, an attorney who founded the nonprofit advocacy group Strategies for Youth in Cambridge, Mass., testified in support of HEA 1193 in 2010. She said the fact the work group has stalled out is a missed opportunity for Indiana.

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