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Rep. Pressley Attacks Zero-Tolerance School Policies Hurting Young Minorities

Photo courtesy Joecephus Martin.

United States Rep. Ayanna Pressley, (D-Mass.), recently introduced a bill to slow the school-to-prison pipeline plaguing minority students, particularly in the South.

Pressley’s PUSHOUT Act (Ending Punitive, Unfair, School-Based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma) follows a documentary released by filmmaker Dr. Monique W. Morris, PUSHOUT: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, which addresses the school pushout crisis facing young Black girls who are disproportionately expelled and suspended from school at every grade level.

The act establishes $2.5 billion in new federal grants for schools that commit to measures rolling back longstanding and destructive no-tolerance policies that adversely affect children of color.

“Education is the equalizer and families are the stabilizer, but too many Black and Brown families have been destabilized by violence, abuse, poverty and discrimination,” Pressley said in a statement. “Not only are our girls carrying trauma from their personal lives when they enter school, but far too many schools have become a place that criminalizes and harms girls of color.”

The proposal, which must get through the House before facing a vote in the racially-indifferent Republican controlled Senate and White House before becoming law, also protects civil rights data collection, and it strengthens the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights by investing an additional $2.5 billion for enforcement and monitoring capacity. The bill also establishes a Federal Interagency Taskforce to counter stubborn no-tolerance policies.

The issue hits to the heart of Mississippi, where a 2015 report from Penn GSE Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education revealed 37,897 Black students were suspended from K-12 public schools in a single academic year. Black students were also revealed to comprise 50 percent of those enrolled in school districts across the state but represented 74 percent of suspensions and 72 percent of expulsions.

Alcorn School District, the Mississippi School for Math and Science, the Pearl River County School District, the Pontotoc County School District and the Union County School District were top among those disproportionately targeting Black students with suspensions, the report claimed.

Two years before the 2015 report, the ACLU and the NAACP both released “Handcuffs on Success: The Extreme School Discipline Crisis in Mississippi Public Schools,” which also found Black children being harshly punished for violating school dress codes and similar behaviors.

The report detailed students being arrested for felony assault after playfully throwing peanuts at one another on a school bus and hitting the white female bus driver with a peanut. Another incident involved a 5-year-old boy being led away from school by police for violating a school dress code that required black shoes. (His mother had unsuccessfully tried to use a black marker to cover his shoes’ red and white decorations). One other student was sent to a juvenile detention center, ultimately, for wearing the wrong color socks.

Joshua Tom, legal director and interim executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, affirmed many low-income schools have an ulterior motive to push out problematic children or students facing mental illness or life-crises at home.

“Lacking resources and facing incentives to push out low-performing students, schools have embraced zero-tolerance policies that automatically impose severe punishment regardless of circumstances. Under these policies, students have been expelled for bringing nail clippers or scissors to school,” Tom told The Lighthouse.

Suspended and expelled children, he added, are often left unsupervised and without constructive activities, which almost inevitably leads them to fall behind in their coursework, and to an even greater likelihood of disengagement and school drop-out. All of these factors, he said, increase the likelihood of court involvement.

Tom said the ACLU remains committed to challenging the school-to-prison pipeline cultivated by PUSHOUT policies, and said “any incentives that the federal government provides that help dismantle this trend are a welcome sign of positive change.”


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