Wednesday, August 3, 2011

VOYCE: The high price of zero-tolerance policies

Today’s guest blogger, Stephanie Mayo, is a student leader with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, an organizing collaborative for education justice led by students of color from seven communities throughout the city of Chicago. Feeling powerless to make positive changes at her middle school, she joined VOYCE two years ago because she saw the group as a force for including the student voice in local education reform. Through VOYCE, she is working to make sure that students have a say in the education policies that affect their lives.

By Stephanie Mayo
VOYCE Student Leader
Albany Park Neighborhood Council

Every day, we students experience overly harsh school discipline measures in action, and see the effect that this approach – known as zero tolerance – has on us and our school culture. Because zero tolerance relies on multi-day suspensions, expulsions, and arrests for even minor or first-time offenses, it is a barrier to building the trusting relationships with school staff that we students need to succeed.

We are glad that school administrators across the nation are finally realizing that zero tolerance does not work, especially in light of the results of the recent study from Texas that examined the impact zero tolerance policies are having on student success.

With research showing proof that being suspended and/or expelled increases a student’s chance of dropping out and being incarcerated, it’s time to stop using suspensions and expulsions to address inappropriate behavior and instead support more effective ways to prevent and respond to misconduct. We don’t need to be arrested, pushed out onto the street, and watched every day by police cameras. We need college counseling, restorative justice, peer and adult mentorship, and mental health supports.

Truly serious problems with school safety, like bringing a gun to school, happen only when young people fall through the cracks of our education system. Zero tolerance doesn’t close the cracks in the system — it just makes them wider by pushing young people onto the streets and into prisons.

In addition to being ineffective, zero tolerance is also expensive.

For example, in 2011 Chicago Public Schools spent $51.4 million on security guards but only $3.5 million on college coaches. And even while they are claiming to have a $600 million budget shortfall, CPS is also considering signing a $100 million, three-year contract to place police in our schools. Spending more and more money on the school-based police officers, metal detectors, and surveillance cameras needed to enforce zero tolerance only prevents the system from investing money on social services that would actually benefit the mental health and engagement of students in schools.

The impact of this uneven spending is that all the students in my school know the security guards and police officers, but we have no idea if our school even has a social worker.

At my school, there is only one college counselor to serve a class of more than 300 seniors, which prevented me and my friends from getting the individual attention we need. The lack of college counselors also results in a huge number of students not applying to college at all.
If our public schools devoted more funding to improving the relationships students have with their teachers and school staff, our students would do better in school. Safe spaces, challenging coursework, strong relationships, high expectations, and relevance to students’ lives are the keys to creating an encouraging environment that promotes academic excellence.

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