Throughout history, there have been reoccurring instances of indirect and direct attacks on African American and Latino communities. These attacks often took the form of social and economic structures and laws. A classic example of this was the first GI Bill that was seen as a public good for veterans but was not made equitable for anyone who was non-white, especially African Americans. K-12 education has become the new GI Bill. While K-12 education is offered to all people, education varies dramatically in quality. In fact, there has been a shift from actually teaching kids to criminalizing them. And now, education policy has become criminal justice policy.

Policies such as zero tolerance and the implementation of SROs (School Resource Officers) have contributed to this criminalization. Zero tolerance policies have no tolerance for a student breaking a school rule, often with no case by case evaluation, and require a consistent punishment – usually suspension or even expulsion. By mandating a fixed punishment for unacceptable behavior regardless of the circumstances, these policies allow for grey areas that can result in unfair solutions. As there is a direct correlation between attendance and academic performance, these policies severely damage student’s ability to do well. In one school year, roughly 3.5 Million students receive in-school suspensions, 1.9 million students receive a single out-of-school suspension, 1.55 million students receive multiple out-of-school suspensions, and 130,000 students get expelled. These numbers are a reflection of the how discipline is accessed within public schools.   

School resource officers are sworn law enforcement officers who prevent crime, maintain safety, and deescalate situations. Additionally, these officers are allowed to make arrests. They show that we have deemed our students probable criminals. School resource officers are not the answer to ‘behavior’ problems in schools. In U.S., there are 1.6 Million kids who do not have counselors within their schools but have law enforcement (SROs). Leaders, both state and local, have chosen to put their faith and funding into law enforcement versus guidance counseling in schools.

Furthermore, there is the rise of mass incarceration. Mass incarceration is usually described as a mass prison boom that is imprisoning people at high, alarming rates, specifically being linked to the vast imprisonment of African Americans. One source that contributes to this rise is supported with policies in public educational systems like zero tolerance and SROs. This is often called the school-to-prison pipeline. These policies were not intended to criminalize kids. Their sole purpose being to reduce violence, and gun and drug possession. Unintentionally, it has influenced a culture of criminalization within schools especially affecting Black and Latino students. Since the 1999 Columbine Massacre, a mass shooting done by two white male students in a suburban city, many schools adopted these policies. These policies disproportionately affect urban minority students. 

Blacks and Latinos are 70% of “in-school” arrests, with majority of these arrests credited to zero tolerance policies. African Americans are 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons. In judicial terms, this translates to Blacks accounting for half of the incarcerated population of 2.3 Million. This trend starts within the education system, where dropouts are 8 times more likely to be incarcerated and 68% of males in state and federal prison don’t have a high school diploma.

While there are some efforts to end the school-to-prison pipeline, these efforts lack media coverage and attention. However, there are also those who would like to expand the pipeline. Effective this year, Missouri has passed a law that could result in a class E felony for students involved in a school fight. In doing so, this law doesn’t actually address the problems with school fights. Nonetheless, there is continuous research and advocacy being done to combat this issue. There is legislation that has been introduced, yet none widespread. Looking forward, this makes the upcoming state elections exciting to see who will make reforms to education and lead the reforms in the right direction.