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'Zero tolerance' in Baltimore schools

Zero tolerance policing doesn't work in the community or Baltimore's schools.

After watching the video of a South Carolina school police officer grab a young girl seated in a desk, throw her back and forth, and then slam her onto the ground, Baltimore City parents are right to worry about their children being subjected to similar treatment. Earlier this year, video emerged of three Baltimore middle school girls being pepper sprayed, struck with a baton and left bloodied by a Baltimore City Public Schools police officer who pled guilty to assault charges last month. We know what zero tolerance looks like; it looks like a child being violently assaulted for minor misbehavior. It looks like suspending a 7 year old for chewing a pop tart into the shape of a gun. That is why in 2014, the Maryland State Board of Education outlined its expectation that districts abolish zero tolerance policies, citing nationwide research establishing that such policies do not improve either school safety or student behavior.

It is against this backdrop that city schools new chief of school supports, Karl Perry, announced his plan to "redefine" school climate in an Oct. 23rd Sun article. According to the article, Mr. Perry plans to "return to zero tolerance enforcement of [his] expectations for appropriate behaviors." The language Mr. Perry used to describe his school climate plan is both troubling and inconsistent with well-established best practices and even some of the more positive approaches Mr. Perry mentioned. While Mr. Perry characterized the BCPS code of conduct as "soft," the code is consistent with the state school board's expectations and regulations, has been recognized as a model for appropriate discipline and has led to a reduction in student suspensions.

In fact, the treatment many children receive in BCPS is decidedly not "soft." Unlike the other 23 school systems in this state, BCPS — whose student population is predominantly African-American and low income — employs its own police force, which arrests high numbers of children in our elementary, middle and high schools every year. BCPS has declined to publicly report its school arrest data; the Department of Juvenile Services (DJS) does keep records however, and reports that school arrests are less than 1 percent of juvenile arrests in the rest of the state but 15.7 percent of juvenile arrests in Baltimore. Although BCPS quibbles with the DJS data, it does not have its own reliable system for data collection. Without a database system, it is unclear how BCPS can accurately report arrests and referrals to law enforcement as it is required to do under Maryland law. Nor does BCPS have the detailed policies in place necessary to run a police force of its size, scope and considerable budget.

A return to the "zero tolerance" philosophy of discipline championed in the Sun article is not a path to improving school climate, nor is it consistent with the state school board's guidance for school discipline. Instead, it feeds the school-to-prison pipeline and creates a greater likelihood that at-risk students, including those with disabilities, will be excluded from school. The alternative to zero tolerance is not "accepting any type of crime," as Mr. Perry put it, but improving school climate and thus student outcomes by implementing proven, positive programming and creating more of the positive relationships between students and staff that Mr. Perry cited.

We call on the system to invest in real school climate change by implementing proven programs like restorative practices, positive behavior interventions and supports, and other research-based interventions; increasing the number of school based mental health providers; increasing engaging curriculum and job skills training; reducing the disproportionate suspension and arrest of students of color and students with disabilities; implementing and making public a database system that tracks school based arrests; creating policies that govern how school police interact with students; and providing adequate training to school police.

We are in agreement with Mr. Perry that we must teach students "the right behavior." However, "zero tolerance," which lacks discretion and leads to school exclusion and arrests of children in school, is not the answer. We support Mr. Perry's high expectations of Baltimore's youth, but students need to be in school, not in jail, to meet those expectations.

Nicole Joseph (nicolej@mdlclaw.org) is an attorney and writes on behalf of the Coalition to Reform School Discipline, which includes Advocates for Children and Youth, ACLU - Maryland, Maryland Disability Law Center, Office of the Public Defender, and Open Society Institute - Baltimore.

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