The Zero Tolerance Targeting of Philadelphia’s Black & Latino Youth Exposed
By Ernest Saadiq Morris, Urban Youth Justice Initiative
The Advancement Project partnered with Youth United for Change and the Education Law Center to release a (January 2011) joint report, Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia: Denying Educational Opportunities and Creating a Pathway to Prison. The report explains how the Philadelphia Schools’ systematic Pushout of Black and Latino students has reached genuine crisis levels by widespread, discriminatory use of zero tolerance discipline. In September 2010, a Philadelphia Schools task force found that low graduation rates of Black(45%) and Latino boys(43%) were tied to their personal feelings of being pushed out and disrespected by zero tolerance policies and class methods. The Advancement Project report further details how harsh zero tolerance discipline relying primarily on school removal (i.e., suspensions, expulsions and disciplinary transfers to alternative schools) is applied to Black and Latino youth at a rate far higher than their white peers for the same behavior, contributing to their academic achievement gap and low graduation rates. The report also connects the dots between the targeting of Philadelphia’s Black and Latino youth with harsh zero tolerance discipline and resulting disproportionate school-based arrests and referrals to law enforcement of these youth of color. First, the report indicates the armed camp approach taken by Philadelphia Schools:
To put Philadelphia’s school security force in perspective, the number of school police, resource, and security officers per student is over ten times higher in the District than it is in the rest of the state.
It is the reliance of zero tolerance discipline upon the heavy hand of law enforcement and, ultimately, the court system that results in a school environment that resembles a police state. As the report explains further:
[S]chools have increasingly delegated school disciplinary responsibilities to law enforcement personnel. Thus, school-based officers are frequently made aware of student behaviors that they likely would not have known about if they were not present in the school. Because criminal laws are so vague (for example, offenses like “disorderly conduct” encompass a huge range of conduct, and “assaults” can include even the most trivial skirmishes between elementary school students), students are routinely arrested for the same behavior that was treated much more leniently and effectively prior to the rise in law enforcement presence within schools.
This resulting increase in school-based contacts between youth and police disproportionately impacts Black and Latino youth, thus leading to their disproportionate contacts with the juvenile/criminal justice system and disproportionate incarceration rate. Just as Michelle Alexander cautioned in her book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, that:
The impact of the new caste system is most tragically felt among the young. In Chicago (as in other cities across the United States), young black men are more likely to go to prison than to college. … The young men who go to prison rather than college face a lifetime of closed doors, discrimination, and ostracism. …. Sadly, like the racial caste systems that preceded it, the system of mass incarceration now seems normal and natural to most, a regrettable necessity.
This report demonstrates how Philadelphia Schools, like so many urban school districts, are a willing partner in the mass incarceration of Black and Latino youth and should be held accountable by all community stakeholders.
Ernest Saadiq Morris is founding director of the public education and advocacy initiative, Urban Youth Justice; a youth rights advocate/ youth empowerment speaker; and civil rights & liberties lawyer. You can follow Urban Youth Justice daily on Facebook and Twitter.