Op-Eds and Commentaries

Demanding Zero Tolerance for Florida’s School-to-Prison Pipeline

Lance Arney
Marilyn Williams

Fifty years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, the Civil Rights offices of the US Department of Education (DOE) and Department of Justice (DOJ) jointly issued detailed guidance on nondiscriminatory administration of discipline in public schools, declaring, "racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem" (2014:4). The real consequences of this very real problem have already negatively impacted the lives of countless black children, on whom "zero tolerance" school discipline policies have been exercised disproportionately and more severely than on white children.

The state of Florida has some of the harshest zero tolerance policies in the country, and therefore some of the most egregious school-related civil rights violations of black youth. This essay will explore how the DOE and DOJ's guidance on "Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline" empowered grassroots activists, civil rights advocacy organizations, and engaged anthropologists in Florida to collaborate in community action to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and decrease the unjust criminalization of black youth.

School-to-Prison Pipeline Is a Civil Rights Issue

Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits racial/ethnic discrimination in public schools and Title VI prohibits racial/ethnic discrimination by recipients of Federal financial assistance. With regard to schools, Title VI is enforced by the DOE's Office for Civil Rights (OCR), whose mission is to ensure equal access to education. In March 2014, the OCR released the results of a comprehensive survey of every public school in the nation—the first such survey since 2000—and made the data available on its website (crdc.ed.gov). The OCR has been responsible for Civil Rights Data Collection since 1968, but it was not until the Obama administration that it began collecting civil rights data on school discipline, specifically corporal punishment, suspension, expulsion, restraint, seclusion, zero tolerance policies, referrals to law enforcement, and school-related arrests. What these data (2011–12 school year) show, to quote Attorney General Eric Holder, is that "racial disparities in school discipline policies are not only well-documented among older students, but actually begin during preschool" (ed.gov).

Significantly, the guidance on Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline had already been published in January 2014, prior to the release of the 2011–12 data in March. As Holder commented, "This Administration is moving aggressively to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline in order to ensure that all of our young people have equal educational opportunities" (ed.gov). The purpose of the guidance is to "assist public elementary and secondary schools in meeting their obligations under Federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin" (2014: 1). It also reminds schools that not only will the education and justice departments initiate investigations based on complaints the departments receive about racial discrimination in student discipline, but that they will be proactive in initiating investigations based on public reports and as part of their compliance monitoring.

Florida: The School-to-Prison Pipeline National Champion?

According to an eight-year study conducted by the Florida DJJ, there were 166,868 school-related arrests in the state of Florida during fiscal years 2004–05 through 2011–12. Nearly half of these arrests (78,821, or 47%) were of black youth, who represent only about 22% of the student population in Florida. While there has been a steady downward trend in school-related arrests over this eight-year period (from 28,008 in 2004–05 down to 13,870 in 2011–12), the proportion of those arrests that were of black students has remained relatively constant, averaging around 48%. Moreover, the fact that "black youth were more likely to have their cases ultimately dismissed than their white counterparts" (2013:1) suggests that many of the arrests were simply unjustified. Nevertheless, when cases against them were pursued, "black males were substantially more likely [than white males] to receive commitment dispositions or to have their cases transferred to adult court" (2013:1). In other words, black males are either being prosecuted for more serious offenses or receiving harsher punishments than white males—or in some cases, possibly both. A 2011 report co-authored by the ACLU of Florida, the Advancement Project, and the NAACP's Florida State Conference states that Florida "has the highest documented number of school-based referrals to law enforcement in the country" (5-6). When the report was prepared, data on school discipline were not being collected or reported by every state. Further analysis of the OCR's 2011–12 survey data, which does include every state, will soon show which states do indeed have the highest number of school-based referrals to law enforcement. In the meantime, data collected by Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) reveal the disturbing magnitude of Florida's school-to-prison pipeline.

The transfer of youth from the juvenile justice system into adult court is a practice in which Florida does indeed lead the nation. According to a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), during the past five years, 12,000 such transfers took place in Florida—and more than 60% of the juveniles transferred were charged with nonviolent felonies (2014: 1). The racial disparity in Florida's prosecution of children as adults is appalling: "Black boys make up 27.2% of children arrested for crime, but account for 51.4% of youth sent to adult court; whereas white boys make up 28% of children arrested and account for only 24.4% of youth tried in adult court" (4). HRW's analysis of transfer rates for different crimes found similar rates for some crimes, but disparities for others, especially in specific judicial circuits such as the 13th Circuit (Hillsborough County), which "transferred 8.8% of white youths arrested for drug felonies to adult court; [but] for black youth arrested for the same crimes, that figure was 30.1%, more than three times higher" (4).

In terms of disproportionate minority contact (DMC) within the Florida juvenile justice system, regardless if the contact was school-related or not, the Florida DJJ reported in 2011 that despite a gradual decline in overall youth arrests from 2000–01 through 2009-10, the relative rate index (RRI) for black youth has worsened over the same period, increasing 28% from 2.13 to 2.73 (2011:3). This means that as of 2009-10, black youth in Florida are 2.73 times more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system than white youth. Additionally, DMC is widespread in Florida: "Among the counties that a referrals-received RRI could be calculated, 97% had black youth disproportionately overrepresented in the juvenile justice system in FY 2009–10" (4). The Florida DJJ has also begun calculating a school referral index (SRI), which "examines the likelihood of minority contact originating from school-related referrals against all other referral sources" (9). For 2009-10, "the likelihood of school-related referrals was 1.25 times greater than nonschool-related referrals for black youth in Florida" (9). In other words, black youth are more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system through a school-related referral.

At the district level, while at least one large school district (Broward County) has implemented alternatives to zero tolerance, others, such as Hillsborough County (the 8th largest school district in the country), have taken additional steps to institutionalize approaches that have already been shown to open rather than close the school-to-prison pipeline. In December 2013, the Hillsborough County School Board approved a plan to place an armed school resource officer in each of its 146 elementary schools—a move the American Civil Liberties Union, among others, strongly criticized. Furthermore, a former assistant police chief has been put in charge of the school district's security.

The professed concern with student behavior and school safety obscures the real issues: civil rights and equality of educational opportunity. Florida has lately taken some other disturbing steps in denying equal educational opportunity to all its children. For example, in 2012 the State Board of Education codified racial discrimination in its strategic plan, establishing race-based education achievement goals. The percent of students that are now expected to perform at or above grade level in reading and math is the lowest (74%) for African American students. The plan also establishes lowered education achievement goals for students from low-income families and students with disabilities—two other categories in which African American children are overrepresented.

Prospects for Dismantling the Prison Pipeline

Ironically, black kids are expected to have unlimited tolerance for the continual violation of their civil rights and for all the other indignities the education system inflicts upon them. It is time we all demand zero tolerance for the school-to-prison pipeline in Florida and everywhere else. Alarmingly, there is still much support at local and state levels, as well as in the private sector, for the criminalization of black youth. It is encouraging, however, that the federal government has finally recognized the school-to-prison pipeline as a national problem, and we hope it is sincere in its commitment to end racial discrimination in student discipline by enforcing Titles IV and VI of the Civil Rights Act. As a community, we must be the architects of our own change, but we can also take advantage of federal policy, such as the Obama administration's mandate to the DOE's OCR to collect data on school discipline and zero tolerance practices, to initiate that change.

As Francis Fox Piven has written, "The work of social change is a slow process. It involves patiently building movement institutions, cultivating leadership, organizing campaigns and leveraging power to secure small gains." Without sufficient support, societal change is very difficult to accomplish, if not impossible. With the confluence of new policy from the Obama administration, the data gathering of professional advocacy organizations, the organizational skills of community activists, and the social and cultural capital of engaged anthropologists, the possibilities for social justice in educational policy and practice are greater now than they have been in quite a while.

Lance Arney holds a doctorate in applied anthropology and is associate director of the Office of Community Engagement and Partnerships at the University of South Florida. He uses community engaged ethnographic research methods to study poverty, inequality, and criminalization. He can be contacted at larney@usf.edu.

Marilyn Williams holds a master's degree in conflict resolution and is a retired educator, conflict resolution practitioner and trainer, and community activist focused on social justice in education and providing advocacy strategies for parents and other groups. She can be reached at marilynw@igc.org.

Reposted from http://www.anthropology-news.org/

Copyright 2014 American Anthropological Association. Reprinted from Anthropology News, with the permission of the American Anthropological Association.