The Zero Tolerance Targeting of Philadelphia’s Black & Latino Youth Exposed

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.

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The False Promise of Color-Blind & Disability-Free Education Reform

Published on Dignity In Schools (http://www.dignityinschools.org)

http://www.dignityinschools.org/content/false-promise-color-blind-disability-free-education-reform

The False Promise of Color-Blind & Disability-Free Education Reform
By Ernest Saadiq Morris, Urban Youth Justice Initiative

The public debate over education reform reached a crescendo in 2010. This debate was dominated by a media-celebrated corporate education-reformer class consisting predominately of white male alumni of privileged secondary schools and universities. Their brand of education reform is focused on high stakes, standardized tests and the promotion of private charter schools. After all, their background of cultural and educational experiences is most favored by the standardized tests upon which these same privileged academic institutions placed a high premium. It is what they know, but it is the wrong prescription for those urban youth of color most at risk of harm from failed public education experiments.

It is well-documented that there is an academic achievement gap for Black males (and other youth of color) as evidenced by lower standardized test scores and graduation rates. Factors such as the proliferation of zero tolerance discipline policies, high stakes standardized testing, disproportionate special education placement, and unequal school funding have discriminatory impacts upon urban youth of color and youth with disabilities and perpetuate educational inequities.

Furthermore, in our nation’s largest urban school districts poverty tracks race. Yet in How to Fix our Schools: A Manifesto, the celebrities of urban corporate education reform, including Michelle Rhee(D.C.), Joel Klein(New York City) and Paul Vallas(New Orleans), loftily declared:

the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher.

Then they set forth how standardized testing and the proliferation of charters are the magic cure-all to improve student and teacher performance, as well as the education system overall.

The fact that sixteen urban school district chiefs refused to address poverty, race, or disability inequities as integral to their education reform manifesto is a heinous omission.

As a result of this blind-eye approach, many youth of color won’t have access to a reform agenda concentrated in charter schools. Worse, the proliferation of charters undermines their right to equal educational opportunity by taking from limited public funds while serving a smaller, less diverse student population than truly public schools. This issue arose recently when the Los Angeles Unified School District was literally forced to give local charter schools a larger cut of its special education budget because they would lose even more funds if charter schools carried out their threat to contract out special education services for which they currently pay the District. As a result of this compromise deal, the District’s traditional public schools will receive less money while continuing to serve more special education students. Indeed, the Los Angeles Times noted that the Unified District’s numbers show about 12% of students district-wide are classified as special needs, yet charter schools only offer special education services to about 6% of their students.

The chronic underserving, or outright exclusion, of special needs youth by charters claiming they are not equipped to handle their needs is a persistent national problem. In October 2010, the special education inequities were so dire in New Orleans that the Southern Poverty Law Center and other advocacy groups filed a lawsuit contending that due to widespread discrimination students with special needs were denied an appropriate education by the majority-charter school New Orleans Recovery School District either denying their enrollment due to their disability or forcing them to attend schools ill-equipped to accommodate their disabilities.

In an ongoing Philadelphia area lawsuit, Blunt et al v. Lower Merion School District, parents of African-American students say they were systematically denied an education equal of their Caucasian classmates due to disproportionate special education placement and lower level curriculum tracking of Black students.

Likewise, high stakes standardized testing has a disproportionately negative effect on Black and Latino students, as well as special needs youth. In 2010, the Advancement Project’s report Test, Punish, and Push Out: How Zero Tolerance and High-Stakes Testing Funnel Youth into the School to Prison Pipeline examined how high stakes standardized testing works with zero tolerance discipline policies to pushout youth of color, especially those from a low income background:

[T]oo many children continue to be labeled academic failures even though they are making progress. These students are shamed by their peers, their teachers, and their communities because of the impact, their test results can have on school assessment.

Additionally, the results from standardized tests are often used to retain students in grade. Yet grade retention has been shown to be the single largest predictor of student dropout. Unless accompanied by targeted and intensive supports and interventions, student retention fails to produce academic gains for the retained students and makes it more likely that the students will experience future behavioral problems.

High stakes testing does not address or alleviate academic achievement disparity rather it stigmatizes it and eventually leads to high pushout/dropout rates. Thereby high stakes testing perpetuates the achievement gap stigma of youth of color and exacerbates their educational disenfranchisement, instead of alleviating it through academic interventions and supports. Once driven to dropout these youth of color and youth with disabilities officially became part of a growing invisible class.

Color-blind and disability-free public education reform is a dangerously exclusionary vision of public education in the image of the elitist academic and cultural backgrounds of the corporate education-reformer class. Equal educational opportunity is a fundamental right of all youth, and its systematic denial is no less than a crime–especially given the historical educational inequities of youth of color and youth with disabilities. Attrition by pushout or dropout of our most at risk youth is merely continuation of the unacceptable status quo that can not justify the redirecting of limited public funds to private hands nor the undermining of every student’s sacred right to equal educational opportunity. It is an illusion of progress and false promise of real reform. Good intentions are not an excuse.

Putting the Sacrifice of Black Youth for the “Greater Good” on Trial

This week in the Philadelphia area it was reported that a federal lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District on behalf of African-American students and their parents would go to trial in November 2011. The case seeks to put an end to disproportionate special education placement and inferior education tracking of Black youth by the Lower Merion District.

As the article states, the case was originally filed as a class action on behalf of

“”all present and future African American students” in the district who, “because of defendants’ acts and omissions . . . are denied access to the general education curriculum; are placed in below-grade-level classes; receive a modified curriculum; and/or are sent to separate, segregated schools which provides them with an education inferior to that provided their Caucasian peers.”

The No Child Left Behind Act placed such emphasis on standardized test scores as a measure of school performance that it can affect federal funding and oversight. As a result, the disproportionate special education placement or inferior education tracking of Black Youth became a larger problem.

Special education warehousing acts to insulate school achievement indicators such as school test scores and graduation rates from “problem students” that may simply be behind due to a previous lack of educational opportunity or intervention. It is these students whose educational rights are sacrificed for a greater good of chasing overall school performance measurables.

Although the judge has decided the case won’t go to trial as a class action because of the uniqueness of the individual claims, it is still encouraging that this far too common education practice may finally be put on trial.

School districts should be put on notice that the sacrifice of Black youth for the greater good can no longer be accepted as business as usual. ~Ernest Saadiq Morris

Featured Links (1/2/11 – 1/8/11)

(Philadelphia metro area) Trial set for lawsuit against School District’s disproportionate Special Ed placement/inferior education tracking of Black students.

American Schools as ‘Punishment Laboratories’

North Carolina A&T State University – Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies: Report: The Black-White Achievement Gap